KANSAS CITY – “Food avoiders” is a phrase used by the market research firm Packaged Facts in its report “Food formulation trends: Ingredients consumers avoid” to describe the consumers who are expressing caution over specific food ingredients. Some of this caution is well placed, because many of these consumers may suffer from celiac disease, food allergies, diabetes or other conditions that requires them to closely monitor the foods they consume.

But what should be of concern is the number of people who do not suffer from any conditions, but are shying away from certain foods. In the absence of a specific health condition the decision to opt for "free from" products – fat-free, sugar-free, salt-free, gluten-free, and so on – may be viewed as a lifestyle choice by consumers who increasingly place a high priority on healthy living. Packaged Facts said its research revealed that the rate of U.S. consumers who claim they are watching their diet remained at an average of 52% between 2006 and 2013, compared to only 28% of Americans in 2004.

“Consumers avoid certain foods or food ingredients for preventive health reasons that may be for their own personal health, the health of their children, and, among pregnant women, as a factor in prenatal health," said David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts. "This is not about dealing with specific allergies but rather a matter of optimizing health and also about seeking to create a quality of life based on eliminating negatives, with the point being not to make oneself sick.”

Packaged Facts noted in the report that food manufacturers, recognizing the opportunity to appeal to concerned consumers who also tend to be trendsetters for other consumers, are extremely accommodating to the shift toward food avoidances, reformulating products to eliminate ingredients that are being shunned. Of course, food manufacturers have been reformulating products for decades, especially products in which the fat, sugar, or salt contents needed to be reduced or eliminated in order to appeal to more health-conscious consumers.

But there remains an opportunity for food and beverage companies to become more active in producing "free from" products, according to the market research firm.

During the Natural Products Expo West trade show, held earlier this month in Anaheim, Calif., the free-from trend was in full view. General Mills, Inc.’s Larabar brand exhibited Renola, a gluten-free, G.M.O.-free granola; the Hain Celestial Group offered gluten-free chicken nuggets; Clif Bar & Co. offered a gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free snack bar under its Kit’s brand; and Kind Healthy Snacks did something similar with the launch of its Strong & Kind bars.

The challenge for product developers going forward is to identify the point where free-from merges with taste-free. Despite all of the discussion that has emerged around the free-from, clean label trend, taste remains the No. 1 attribute consumers consider to determine if they are going to make a repeat purchase. It is easy to get caught in the hype that surrounds many of the current trends affecting food and beverage product development, but the importance of taste, which is the key arbiter between the success and failure of a new product, should never be overlooked.