The Scoop on the Free-From Food Category

Food allergies and sensitivities continue to be on the rise. Here, how to meet the needs of customers with allergen-free and low-FODMAP offerings.

For the estimated 32 million Americans with food allergies, grocery shopping can be a fraught experience, as the wrong purchase can trigger a dangerous reaction. Data suggests 200,000 people require emergency medical care for an allergic reaction to foods each year (1). “Food allergies can range from life threatening to inflammatory, and the conscious consumer is increasingly aware of the direct effect of label-reading in reducing or eliminating the chance for adverse reaction,” notes Vija Viksne, VP, Marketing, Atlantic Natural Foods. “The severity of reactions are unpredictable, driving the allergen-concerned consumer to be hyper vigilant, so much so that they are willing to pay a higher price for foods that are ensured to be safe to consume.”

It’s not just those with allergies who are looking for products in the free-from category. “Consumers are paying more attention to how certain foods or ingredients make them feel,” notes Rosa Dixon, co-founder and CEO of Raised Gluten Free, “which is leading to an increased number of people finding that they have a food intolerance or simply feel better when they cut out common allergens like dairy, eggs, or gluten from their diet.”

Steering clear of certain sugars called FODMAPs is also of growing interest for those with digestive issues. “FODMAP is an acronym for different types of carbohydrates (sugars) that the small intestine finds difficulty digesting and can often lead to the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome or IBS,” explains Angela Walker, MSc Nut Med, Meatless Farm In-house Nutritionist. “In a low FODMAP diet, these are minimized or avoided. The FODMAP diet has grown in popularity as a way to resolve IBS, the rate of which also seems to be rising.”

Ketan Vakil, Founder and CEO of Gourmend Foods, echoes this sentiment: “With 10%-15% of people suffering from IBS or other gut-related issues, people are becoming more and more aware that diet is a major influencer in how we feel,” Vakil notes. “Through careful work with a dietitian, if it turns out that certain foods are causing you symptoms, like onion and garlic bulbs, common symptom-causing ingredients that are otherwise good for you, low FODMAP formulated products can be the answer to feeling much better.”

Catering to the needs of those avoiding certain food ingredients has become a big business—and natural products retailers are in a prime spot to profit from skyrocketing growth in this category. In fact, according to Allied Market research, the “free from” food market size was valued at $90.1 billion in 2018, and is projected to reach $161.2 billion by 2026—that’s a CAGR of 7.7% from 2019 to 2026 (2).

 

3 keys to building consumer trust

To meet the needs of customers with food allergies, our experts note that retailers should look for three key factors to ensure product safety: 1) Clear labeling 2) Third-party certifications, and 3) Manufacturing environment.

Zero in on Labeling: “By law, product labels are required to disclose whether a product contains one of the eight major allergens, so retailers should be sure that the brands they carry adhere to this,” notes Dixon. Marie Grunbeck, Brand Manager, Pamela’s Products, adds that clear labeling can also be helpful to draw in customers following specific diets. “If a product is not certified for an allergen but does fall within the guidelines of a particular diet or is allergen-free, simply stating things like ‘paleo-friendly’ or ‘dairy-free’ on the packaging is helpful to consumers who don’t have allergies but are choosing to eat with specific dietary preferences.”

Look for third-party certifications.“The best way for a retailer to reduce risk for their customers is for buyers to always look for a third-party certification,” asserts Jeanne Reid, Marketing Manager with Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). She notes that in the gluten-free category, the FDA’s rule on gluten-free labeling of fermented, hydrolyzed and distilled products that went into effect in August of 2021 has led to confusion both in the industry and among consumers. “GIG’s food safety certification program, GFCO, ensures manufacturers follow strict standards including sourcing safe ingredients, ensuring safety in the production process, and testing proficiently to ensure every product meets the standard of 10 ppm or less of gluten—twice as strict as the FDA.”

For FODMAPs, Vakil adds, “retailers should be looking for certification by Monash University or FODMAP Friendly—both require robust lab testing of formulations to ensure FODMAP levels are below a certain threshold to ensure products do not cause symptoms for those who are sensitive to various carbohydrates.”

Stay vigilant about manufacturing practices. “Retailers should look for brands and manufacturers that take food safety seriously and who work on their segregation processes within their manufacturers, which ensures that they are complying with the latest information on allergen cross contamination and how to avoid it, “ notes Karl Williams, Meatless Farm Global Technical Director. “Achieving a robust and consistent validation process, testing both the raw materials, process, and finished products, is what drives the safety of the product.”

For instance, Gael Orr, Director of Marketing, Once Again Nut Butter, notes that the company’s facilities are SQF Certified by Safe Quality Foods, a global food safety and quality certification and management system and they took their manufacturing safety a step further to avoid cross contamination. “Once Again moved our peanut butter production to a dedicated SQF Certified facility to prevent the cross contamination of allergens. This move ensures that our almond, cashew, and seed butters are all processed in a separate peanut-free facility, which is also noted on our jar labels.”

 

What’s trending

“Allergy-friendly formulations have also come a long way since the early days, making it easier for consumers to find alternatives to conventional products that don’t sacrifice taste or texture, and in turn are attracting more consumers to the category,” notes Dixon. Here, what’s hot.

Plant-based: Plant-based is growing in this category, but look for brands that are “moving away from wheat and soy and replacing it with more allergen-friendly and sustainable alternatives like pea protein and pea blends,” says Williams. “Dairy will see a bigger shift to more plant-based options and we will start to see more vegan/veggie friendly fish lines, again aiding the move away from allergens and intolerance.”

“Complex allergies and lifestyle choices are merging, so brands are working to provide allergen-friendly foods for the vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian, while accommodating every imaginable combination of allergies in between,” adds Vikse, noting that Atlantic Natural Foods is developing products that combine convenience with allergen awareness with products like Tuno (a fishless seafood alternative), neat (a gluten-free, soy-free ground beef replacement), and Loma Linda (gluten-free, vegan, heat-and-eat meals).

Keto/paleo: “Grain-free, paleo-friendly, and keto products are definitely on trend right now,” notes Grunbeck.

Convenience snacks: “Grab-and-go foods that make it easy to enjoy an allergy-friendly snack will continue to be popular,” says Orr, who notes Once Again recently launched graham cracker sandwiches for this reason. “They’re the first certified gluten-free and vegan sandwich crackers and are made with a nutritious blend of organic sorghum flour, organic oat flour and organic cassava flour, and available in peanut butter and sunflower butter flavors.”

Heat-and-eat meals: “Convenient, heat-and-eat foods are in high demand, and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon,” asserts Dixon. “Frozen meals in particular are something that we’re seeing increased interest in.” To meet demand for plant-based foods that are also allergy-friendly, Raised Gluten Free offers frozen, ready-to-eat Vegetable Pot Pie and Vegan Quiche, which are 100% vegan, certified gluten free, and free of the common allergens dairy, eggs, wheat, nuts and peanuts.

Baking: The baking trend that led the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen off a bit, but Reid notes that there’s increased interest in
allergy-friendly baking mixes.

Clean labels: “Truly clean label foods are a major trend,” notes Vakil. “We define it a step further than most—really, not using any ingredients, fillers or natural flavors that one can’t find in their kitchen.”

Flavor boosters: Condiments and other flavor-boosting sauces are often overlooked—especially in products catering to those on a low FODMAP diet—but these customers desire flavorful meals just as much as other consumers, notes Francine Sternthal, Fody Foods’ VP of Marketing. “All of Fody’s products, such as pasta sauces, salsas, marinades, and even ketchup, are made without any digestive triggers like onion or garlic, gluten or lactose, or other high FODMAPs. The convenience of ready-made sauces that bring the flavor without any risk of bloating or discomfort is what consumers will be looking to grab and take home off their grocery shelves.”

 

Success secrets to selling  

As popular as allergy-friendly foods have become, there’s still confusion about safety and ingredient labeling. “The continuing rise of product barcode scanning apps shows that consumers are still confused about which products are safe or good for them and have challenges interpreting what still can be confusing ingredient lists,” says Vakil. But once these customers find a store or products that meet their needs, they tend to be very loyal and consistent shoppers. For instance, Sternthal notes, “90% of Fody shoppers polled said they would switch grocery stores to find Fody products on shelf.”

Some tips:

  1. Create a dedicated section. “Organizing products for those following a certain diet like low FODMAP—or marking products with shelf talkers highlighting such things—might aid in discovery and reduce shopping stress,” notes Vakil. What’s more, it’s important to educate employees so there aren’t mix ups or cross-contamination introduced in your store, add Reid. “Stock gluten-free products on higher shelves, include gluten-free labeled shelf tags on verified gluten-free products, and arm your employees with the knowledge that a spilled bag of regular flour is a danger sign to a gluten-free shopper.”
  2. Double down on benefits. “With the growing number of allergy-friendly foods on the market, I’d recommend that retailers look for products that offer additional benefits to maximize impact,” adds Orr. “For many consumers, it’s not enough to just be allergy friendly. They might also want a product that’s made with clean ingredients, plant-based or keto.”
  3. Listen to customer requests. “The relationship among manufacturers, retailers, and consumers is vital to continued growth in the allergen-friendly space,” notes Viksne. “When retailers listen to their consumers’ requests and source products accordingly, their sales increase and the customer is satisfied with the store experience. Allergen-friendly manufacturers welcome the feedback from the store level to drive innovation for new products. This is how the industry will grow and evolve together to meet this growing demand for allergen-friendly foods.”
  4. Stick with trusted brands. “Choose companies with several years of history and expertise in the allergen-friendly space to ensure the label can be trusted,” says Viksne. “Bring in a wide-variety of products you can trust, because in turn it creates loyalty and excitement among your allergen-friendly patrons to visit this section over and over again. When they seek out this section for a product they know, they will invariably find an additional new product to try.”
  5. Make it personal. “The number of allergy-friendly products on the market can be overwhelming for consumers, so one thing I’d recommend is finding brands that have a unique story to tell that will resonate with shoppers,” notes Dixon. “For example, my business partner and best friend Milia and I were inspired to start Raised Gluten Free after my daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease and Milia found an intolerance to dairy and eggs was negatively affecting her health. I’ve struggled with a nut allergy my whole life, so this business and our mission is personal and something many consumers who are facing the same issues can relate to.” WF

 

References

  1. Foodallergy.org. https://www.foodallergy.org/resources/facts-and-statistics
  2. Allied Market Research. https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/free-from-food-market-A06007#:~:text=The%20free%20from%20food%20market,7.7%25%20from%202019%20to%202026.
  3. Skodje, G. I., Sarna, V. K., Minelle, I. H., Rolfsen, K. L., Muir, J. G., Gibson, P. R., Veierød, M. B., Henriksen, C., & Lundin, K. (2018). Fructan, Rather Than Gluten, Induces Symptoms in Patients With Self-Reported Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. Gastroenterology, 154(3), 529–539.e2. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2017.10.040