From 2011 to 2014, the percentage of food product launches that featured a low/no/reduced allergen claim, which is one subset of the free-from food industry, jumped from 11% to 28%, according to Mintel. Another survey from Innova Market Insights found that about one in 10 global food and drink product launches were for gluten-free products, another subset of free-from, in the year leading up to April 2015.
Looking closer at the free-from movement, the definition of free-from, consumer perceptions, and interest from major companies emerge.
Evolution of a definition
"Free-from" can refer to several different types of foods: allergen-free, gluten-free, non-GMO, and so forth. According to Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer at free-from company Enjoy Life Foods, his team popularized the phrase in the U.S. nearly a decade ago, before the free-from industry really existed in the country.
"We were trying to communicate to the retailer what being free from the top eight [allergens] meant," said Warady. "We coined the phrase in the U.S., 'free-from.' We borrowed it from the U.K. and EU, but in Europe, free-from is primarily gluten-free and free of something else, not necessarily free from the top eight. We brought the phrase over to the U.S. and started utilizing it with retailers, and then we introduced it to the media, we introduced it to trade, and we said the free-from movement should encompass gluten-free, which would be a subset of free-from, allergen-friendly, a subset of free-from, non-GMO, etc."
Regardless where the term originated, it's now part of a complicated discussion.
"Some of the manufacturers are causing confusion with consumers because they’re throwing a lot of things under this umbrella of free-from," said Warady.
He lists artificial ingredients as one of those components coming under the free-from label, and trans fat-free is another, though those may not be the original intention of free-from manufacturers.
What is essential to the free-from movement across the board is a dedication to more simplicity and transparency when it comes to ingredients to appeal to consumers who both need and want these types of foods.
"We really emphasize transparency, make sure it’s really easy to understand what’s inside, and strive to make them from few, simple ingredients as well," said Dana Ginsburg, director of marketing at free-from snacks company Bare Snacks. "This really appeals to people who are looking for something that meets their dietary needs and can be really simple and easy to understand."
"They don’t have to worry about deciphering a long label list or long set of ingredients," Ginsburg continued. "It makes it quick and easy for them to shop and feel confident about the products they’re buying."
How free-from products are perceived
According to a recent Mintel report, about 84% of American consumers of free-from products said they believe free-from products are more natural or less processed, while about 43% said free-from foods are healthier.
"Products became more available that were free from gluten, free from allergens, and parallel to that people were looking for clean ingredient decks," said Warady. "A consumer that’s making this lifestyle choice says, 'If someone can make a great-tasting product that’s free from gluten and free from soy and doesn’t have any dairy, and it still tastes great, why wouldn’t I eat it?'"
"So that paradigm shift is that the average consumer who is now looking to remove certain ingredients from their daily life just out of choice is finding that this prevalence of free-from products that taste great meet their desires," Warady continued. "It’s why we’ve seen such an explosion in the free-from category."
Large companies join the free-from movement
Not to be outdone by smaller companies, which consumers reportedly trust more in regards to food claims, larger companies are participating in the free-from movement as well.
Mondelez International announced its acquisition of Enjoy Life Foods in February, and Warady said that while other companies expressed interest in a deal as well, Enjoy Life found Mondelez to be a beneficial partner because Mondelez recognized early on that it should allow the free-from company to operate as a standalone entity, in terms of both sales and operations.
But according to Warady, Mondelez also offered more opportunities for the company to grow, including capital resources as well as expertise Enjoy Life didn’t possess at the time, such as how to make production more efficient and otherwise put out a higher-quality product. Mondelez has also helped Enjoy Life by making introductions that Enjoy Life may have had difficulty with in the past, such as in the foodservice industry, where Enjoy Life is beginning to accelerate its efforts.
In addition to acquiring free-from companies, other major food companies have looked inward at their own brands for opportunities to make products fit into the free-from movement — or to find products that already do and label them as such.
Several varieties of General Mills’s Cheerios brand were already gluten-free, and another needed just a few ingredient tweaks for them all to bear the gluten-free label. However, General Mills recently had to recall 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios because wheat flour, which contains gluten, was inadvertently added to the product.
General Mills also announced it would be changing the Lucky Charms recipe to make the cereal brand gluten-free by the beginning of 2016, according to Matt Wilson, global consumer insights manager at General Mills.
"Lucky Charms is a really interesting one from a research perspective because when you look at more and more companies and manufacturers that are moving closer to free-from and embracing that, it’s not just wellness products," said Wilson. "It’s products that are taste-first and products that are indulgent."
As the consumer health trend and food information continue to spread, the free-from movement seems to grow in tandem. Both small and large companies don’t appear to be moving on from this movement as merely a trend that could bypass the industry but rather see it as a potentially foundational change that could impact the perception of the food industry from now on.
However, not all are supportive of the trend, particularly regarding gluten-free, for those without sensitivities. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, no published scientific research reveals health benefits of a gluten-free diet for those that don't have Celiac disease, wheat allergy, nonceliac gluten sensitivity or autoimmune diseases.
"The free-from [movement] is one part of that broader holistic wellness trend we are seeing play out as consumers evolve in how they think about food," said Wilson.
"We knew that the world was going to head in this direction," said Warady. "We knew that food allergies were on the rise. We also knew that people were going to be looking for cleaner ingredients. What we didn’t know was when it was going to happen, and we didn’t know how big it was going to get."