DUIVEN, The Netherlands—Whether you call it clean label, natural, wholesome or gluten-free, consumer demand for “naturalness" is driving the “free-from" food market and causing food and beverage makers to rethink how they formulate these products to appeal to health-conscious consumers.
Considerable effort has gone into developing gluten-free and lactose-free products globally in recent years, but at the same time the whole free-from category is widening out to include broader definitions such as dairy-free, additive- and preservative- free and even, increasingly, GMO-free, according to new market data from Innova Market Insights.
The free-from foods market is booming in many parts of the world, widening into new categories and increasingly moving into the mainstream with introductions from major manufacturers and brands. And retailers are realizing the potential and dedicating more shelf-space, improving in-store signage, and in some cases, offering their own private-label products.
The clean-label trend has moved forward considerably in recent years and nearly 13% of total food and drink launches recorded globally in 2013 used additive- and/or preservative-free claims, up from 10% in 2008.
“While claims using the term ‘natural’ have increasingly come under fire for lack of clarity regarding definition, the use of additive-free and preservative-free claims has been able to move forward relatively unhindered," said Lu Ann Williams, Director of Innovation at Innova Market Insights. “Interest in naturalness is still highly evident, however, and is also reflected in the growing use of GM-free labeling although it remains relatively limited on a global scale."
Interestingly, only 2.3% of global launches tracked used GMO-free labeling in 2013. Snacks, bakery and dairy have the largest number of launches, reflecting the significance of GM ingredients in sectors using high levels of cereals for food or feed, ahead of meat, fish and eggs, confectionery and RTE meals.
In the more traditional free-from sector, gluten-free lines continue to see rising availability, increasingly moving out of the specialist dietetic sector and into the mainstream market. Nearly 8% of product launches recorded in 2013 used a gluten-free positioning, rising to 10% in Western Europe and nearly 14% in the United States. This growth is partly due to improved labeling regulations, but also to rising awareness of gluten intolerance in the diet and the development of more mainstream and good-tasting gluten-free products across a range of food and drinks sectors.
The use of lactose-free claims has been less popular than gluten-free, but even so 1.5% of launches used this kind of positioning in 2013, double the share five years previously. The dairy market has, perhaps not surprisingly, seen the highest levels of activity, accounting for over one-third of total lactose-free launches, with 7% of dairy launches using this type of claim. Levels of interest and product activity have been particularly high in North America and Western Europe, where 10% of dairy launches used this type of positioning.
Consumers are increasingly seeking foods and beverages with shorter, more simple ingredient statements; however, great taste and quality are still top of mind. The challenge for product developers is to keep labels clean without sacrificing function, food safety or quality in a variety of applications.
Take the dairy industry for example. Clean-label formulations have long been one of its strengths; however, not all dairy products are simple formulations and, once emulsifiers and sweeteners become part of the product mix, careful ingredient selection is required to keep labels clean. When it comes to crafting clean-label beverages, product designers must not only clean up the ingredients label, but also provide the taste, sensory attributes and overall quality consumers expect. (Check out the “Keeping It Clean" digital issue from Food Product Design for more on this.)
The bakery sector is another excellent example of demand driving product innovation. The gluten-free market is growing substantially as consumers turn to gluten-free food products to help manage symptoms of celiac disease and gluten-intolerance. In the past, gluten-free baked goods lacked appealing texture, but new ingredients and processes are helping food product designers develop gluten-free products that resemble their gluten-containing counterparts, with similar texture, mouthfeel and flavor. FPD’s recent “The Joy of Gluten-Free Baking" digital issue took an in-depth look at different ingredients that work together to replace gluten in bakery products.
It is clear that the free-from sector is set for further growth, with interest continuing to spread from those diagnosed as celiac disease, food allergies and intolerances, as well as rising interest in health and wellness. This sector is poised for continued growth due to ongoing development of a greater range of products that don’t sacrifice quality, texture or taste.