of Americans buy “free-from” foods because they want more natural or less processed options, according to Mintel.
Demand is soaring for free-from foods: The global free-from food market was valued at $71,381.2 million this year, and is expected to register a CAGR of 13.25% by 2028, according to Mordor Intelligence. Gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-free, sugar-free, GMO-free…consumers are ditching the ingredients that they don’t want as they focus on optimizing their wellbeing.
“The global ‘free-from’ food category is witnessing a robust increase in demand across the globe,” according to Fortune Business Insights. “In recent years, the growing consumers’ knowledge about eating healthy has transformed the clean label and ‘free-from’ categories from niche to mainstream. Consumers turn toward food that helps them manage and maintain their overall health. They seek alternative food and beverage formulations that aid in avoiding food allergies and align with their diets. Manufacturers are also adapting to the shifting consumer preferences by introducing products to cater to the rising demand.”
Originally designed for individuals managing allergies and health needs, the rapidly expanding free-from category now has the interest of health-conscious shoppers who don’t have dietary restrictions, says Eric Quirin, Sales Director, EMEA at Chaucer Foods. “In fact, 84% of Americans were found to buy ‘free-from’ foods because they believe them to be more natural or less processed, showcasing the impressive market opportunity for brands to innovate free-from foods.”
Trends drastically changed in the free-from diet category after the pandemic, adds Adit Agrawal, President and CEO of AlcoEats. “I think the main reason for this is because consumers have had the time to prioritize their health and gain perspective on their meals. The vegetable category has grown the most when it comes to people following free-from diets. Whether it be low-FODMAP, vegan, gluten-free, etc., this category has parallels in most of them.” Further, the free-from-food market is thriving in the light of medical advancements that have analyzed and provided a solid understanding of different responses from the immune system, enabling consumers to make conscious decisions in purchasing their food products.
Consumer awareness regarding label claims such as allergen-free and dairy-free is another factor driving the market for these products. According to a 2021 study published by the International Food Information Council Foundation, more than half (54%) of participants indicated that front-of-package (FOP) labels have an impact on food and beverage purchases. Nearly a quarter (24%) agree that such labels have a considerable impact. Most survey participants (94%) were familiar with at least one FOP label.
Free-from food trends
ECRM recently hosted its Gluten & Allergen Free, Keto and Plant-Based Food & Beverage Sessions, where companies were able to introduce innovative products to the right buyers. Trendspotter Nancy Trent reported several trends in this category, including:
- Innovative Non-Dairy
- Better-for-You Indulgences
Trent shared the scoop on brands that caught her eye at the ECRM event, and you can review her coverage on www.WholeFoodsMagazine.com. And read on for a closer look at the various factors are driving each trend:
The demand for plant-based foods is increasing due to the growing awareness about the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Consumers increasingly seek vegetarian and vegan food products to help reduce cholesterol and improve health and overall wellbeing.
“Flexitarians, or people who regularly follow a plant-based diet but occasionally consume meat, are a growing category of free-from consumers,” reports CJ McClellan, Senior Strategic Marketing Manager, Blue Diamond Global Ingredients Division. “Not set on a strict free-from diet, flexitarians typically select products based on the added benefits rather than being entirely plant-based for personal health or sustainability reasons.”
With the rise in popularity of vegetables, notes Agrawal, consumers are seeking bold flavors. “One flavor that has grown at the same levels as vegetables is the curry flavor and the Indian simmer sauce or spice category overall. The trends start to make sense when you realize that most Indians today still are vegetarians. Indians definitely have huge experience in making vegetables taste good and this can be backed by the trends we see today with the vegetable category.”
In the last few years, gluten-free products have had a huge impact on the health-conscious population. Since the prevalence of gluten-related conditions such as celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) has been increasing, the demand for products is also increasing, according to Market Research Future. The global gluten-free food market size is projected to grow from $5.72 billion in 2021 to $9.99 billion in 2028, at a CAGR of 8.29% during the 2021-2028 period, Fortune Business Insights reports. As the analysts noted: “Gluten-free food is primarily designed for people who have celiac disease and gluten allergies, as consuming gluten can lead to several damages, such as swelling in the intestine. However, its popularity is significantly rising even among people not suffering from gluten allergies due to the health benefits offered by a gluten-free diet. It is mostly found in baked items, as it gives texture and shape to the products, but the protein offers no nutritional benefit. Hence, consumers are looking to avoid gluten in their diets as it helps in promoting healthy weight loss, improves digestion, and increases energy. Additionally, increasing consumer demand for functional foods and rising product innovation in ‘free-from’ food segments are projected to fuel the gluten free food market growth over the forecast period.”
Jeanne Reid, Marketing Manager, Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), explains trends in the free-from diets market in terms of ingredients, flavors, and offerings: “For 2023, we are seeing a surge in gluten-free kitchen staples, particularly ones that hit the key points of being organic, non-GMO, and sustainable. Spices, seasonings, and sauces are abundant with lots of cultural influences… of particular note are the Asian flavors like sriracha, orange sauce, ginger, teriyaki, soy, sesame, miso, bulgogi, pad thai, tiki masala, gochujang. Pastas are a soaring category with plant-based ingredients as a standout. Watch for fresh and packaged pastas with ingredients such as green peas, cauliflower, mung bean, kale, broccoli, spinach, beet, carrot, and sweet potato.”
“A newly emerging trend in the popular ready-to-drink, dairy-free category is clean label,” says McClellan. “In combination with removing dairy ingredients from their products, consumers are seeking plant-based products that limit the ingredient list to include recognizable and nutritious ingredients without any artificial fillers.”
Another trend in this space is carb-free options that also are ditching top allergens. “Many more people are paying closer attention to ingredients and what fuels their body,” says Kellyann Petrucci, M.S., N.D. “We are seeing trends with keto-friendly, low-sodium offerings, and high-protein count.” As with other trends in the free-from space, Dr. Petrucci notes that unique flavor profiles, like her company’s Thai Lemongrass Bone Broth, get rave reviews.
Delicious (and Healthy!) Indulgences
According to a 2020 survey by survey by Mondelez International, 64% of the consumers in the U.S. preferred consuming snacks as nourishment food, while 56% of them seek healthful snacking options. The snacking trend has grown widely popular, especially among Millennials, as they seek convenient, safe, and nutritionally enriched products, which positively aids in driving the free-free market.
“A revival of ancient ingredients, forgotten flavors, and dishes rich in cultural heritage is happening in the snacking category,” says Sujatha Duvvuri, Co-founder & Chief Product Officer, The Greater Goods Snacking Co. “Adventurous foodies are educating themselves about cultures easily through snacking experimentation with various ingredients. The Greater Goods Snacking Co. uses the ancient Indian sweetener, liquid jaggery. Liquid jaggery contains a nutritious mixture of antioxidants and micronutrients that aren’t present in other processed foods, which is why ancient Indian practices like Ayurveda consider liquid jaggery to be medicinal. We use this ingredient in all of our products to offer a regional ingredient globally.”
Consumers are becoming increasingly adventurous with familiar snack formats, says Duvvuri, and are leaning into global flavors. ”Our research has found that vegans and dietary-restricted audiences are particularly craving global flavors. There aren’t many adventurous offerings in the better-for-you cookie category, so we introduced Chai Spice cookies. As all Greater Goods products are manufactured in our bakery in India, we thought it was only natural to launch a chai spice flavor from the land of spices.”
Looking specifically at gluten-free snacks, CJ McClellan, Senior Strategic Marketing Manager, Blue Diamond Global Ingredients Division says: “Expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 8.3% to reach $10.96 billion by 2029, the global gluten-free products market is leading the free-from category. Formulators are leveraging specialty flour mixes that include a blend of flours to deliver a well-balanced and delicious gluten-free offering. By utilizing different portions of specialty flour mixes, formulators can test different textures and consistencies in the free-from products to create offerings such as gluten-free, single-serve cakes or gluten-free protein pasta.”
Also noting this trend, Reid adds, “The top category for newly GFCO-certified products is baking mixes, with sauces/dressings/spreads a close second…It is exciting to see that alternatives to grains continue to be a strong addition to the category, along with climate-friendly and upcycled ingredients. Watch for baking mixes made from okara, cassava, fava, coconut, pea, almond, chickpea, lentil, banana, buckwheat, carob, ramón seed, and hemp seed.”
As a global ingredient supplier of naturally free-from freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, Quirin says, “Our customers regularly request our ingredients in a variety of forms to fit their product needs. For example, our freeze-dried pieces are perfect for a tasty free-from granola, while our freeze-dried ingredient powders allow formulators to infuse natural health benefits into supplements or even beverages.”
At Blue Diamond, McClellan says, “While all of our products are naturally gluten- and dairy-free, our blanched almond flour is a common ingredient to include within a range of free-from product categories. Offered in a fine and extra fine granulation, the natural light and buttery taste makes it perfect for cookies, bread, and cakes. While it can be used alone in a gluten-free formulation, its clean taste and neutral flavor allows it to blend well within a mix of additional gluten-free flours. Whether in a mix or standing on its own, our almond flour delivers the structure, taste and texture shoppers are looking for in a gluten-free product. Blanched almond butter is also used as a base in many dairy-free alternatives. With its solidification and melting point being similar to dairy, our almond butter is ideal for dairy-free frozen desserts and spreads. With no off-putting flavors or colors, our almond butter pairs well with existing ingredients and does not require additional product reformulations.”
In terms of product offerings, Duvvuri says, many categories have already seen grain-free innovation. “However, biscotti was one category that we realized hadn’t been broken into before our U.S. launch. We saw this potential and launched our almond flour-based, grain-free biscotti because the category had no clean-label, grain-free options. All of Greater Goods’ biscotti SKUs have been well-received by retailers and consumers alike.” The top seller: Orange Cranberry Biscotti. “Overall,” Duvvuri says, “our biscotti sales exceed those of the crackers and cookies.” WF
2 Sales-Boosting Strategies
1) Know Your Customer’s Needs: “The gluten-free market continues to be in a state of high market growth with projections to accelerate in pace,” says GIG’s Reid. “GIG’s recent research shows that 23% of U.S. adult shoppers are avoiding gluten in their homes, with 7% rigidly restricting gluten. It is important for natural product retailers to know that, while some consumers are choosing gluten-free to promote their own wellness, the gluten-free diet is a medical necessity for many; including the 1% of the population with celiac disease, and up to 13% with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. These shoppers in particular find label reading frustrating, with 2 out of 3 preferring gluten-free products to have the GFCO certification mark over a gluten-free claim.”
2) Stock Brands that Complement You: “Greater Goods specifically relates to consumers who are health committed, those with dietary restrictions, and families just looking for healthy snacks,” says Duvvuri. “To launch our brand in the U.S., we took a multifaceted approach to marketing. We partnered with influencers who were already engaged with our target audience and located near retailers where our products were available. Similarly, we sourced a lot of user-generated content, as that often builds a strong level of trust and affinity for the brand. And of course, we launched social media campaigns that were geared toward our target audience. A strategic marketing plan coupled with the retailer’s brand positioning is important. Our healthy, family-oriented customers tend to gravitate toward retailers that have a strong brand identity as the go-to source for natural and organic products. Especially when trying to reach dietary-restricted customers, it’s crucial to market your niche as a healthy, natural retailer.”