CHICAGO — Once a descriptor used mostly with macronutrients like fat and sugar on foods designed for special diets and weight-loss plans, “free” is now one of the most used words among food marketers. The elimination of food ingredients and components from everyday foods resonates with consumers on avoidance diets, and the number of such consumers is growing, either for real medical reasons or perceived wellness benefits.
Researchers estimate about 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta. The figure continues to rise annually, and scientists are not sure why. The C.D.C. found that allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011, and today, approximately one in every 13 children (under 18 years of age) in the United States has one or more food allergies.
Avoidance of potentially deadly allergens is the only known way to prevent the auto-immune reaction that follows consumption. Reactions range from anaphylactic shock to gastrointestinal distress to hives/rash.
Some people experience adverse reactions to food components, namely to gluten and lactose. Described as intolerances or sensitivities, the reactions do not spark an immune system response, but nonetheless, may be detrimental. And again, avoidance is the only solution.
The growing number of consumers following avoidance diets for health reasons, coupled with the desire for simple, natural, better-for-you foods, is driving the proliferation of free-from foods. Many such foods exclude one or more of the eight most common food allergens, as identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These are dairy, egg, fish, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, shellfish and wheat, and are referred to as the “big 8” foods responsible for 90% of all allergic reactions to food in the United States.
In addition, some companies, such as Enjoy Life Foods, Chicago, a Mondelez International business unit, exclude three additional allergens recognized by the Canadian government. They are mustard, sesame and sulfites. By eliminating dairy, Enjoy Life Foods’ products are automatically lactose free, milk’s inherent sugar. The company also excludes the use of any gluten-containing ingredients.
Taking free-from one step further, all Enjoy Life Foods are free of any genetically modified ingredients, with packages featuring the Non-GMO Project verified certification logo. These many elimination efforts place Enjoy Life Foods at the top of the gluten-free/allergy-friendly food chain.
Of all free-from claims, gluten-free accounts for the majority. When producing gluten-free grain-based foods, which requires the elimination of wheat flour and other gluten-containing grain flours, often times dairy, egg or tree nuts — big 8 allergens — are introduced into the formula. This is because the elastic strands of gluten in baked foods capture and retain leavening gasses, providing structure to baked foods. That function is best mimicked by dairy or egg proteins. Ground forms of tree nuts, on the other hand, function as flour substitutes. Often times all three are required, sometimes with hydrocolloids.
Many gluten-free grain-based foods are anything but simple. That is because, for example, with traditional wheat bread, you only need a couple of ingredients. With gluten-free bread, there is no single gluten-free flour that is a direct substitution for wheat flour, so often formulators use twice as many ingredients, with a mix of different flours, proteins and starches, to get a similar texture and flavor.
Still, sales of gluten-free foods are booming. The market demonstrated an annual growth rate of 36% over the five-year period ended in 2015, when the market reached $1.6 billion, according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. The market research firm forecasts the market will reach $2 billion in 2020.
Gluten-free foods are gaining popularity partly because manufacturers and marketers are aligning new product developments with other emerging trends in the food and beverage industry. The trends include clean labels, marketer transparency and the use of plant proteins and ancient grains.
“Much like veganism and flexitarianism or going low-carb or dairy-free, avoiding gluten has become a true lifestyle choice for many Americans,” said David Sprinkle, research director at Packaged Facts. “These consumers may not have a specific health-related motive necessitating the switch to gluten-free. Yet for gluten-free advocates there’s often a satisfaction from furthering one’s overall health and nutrition goals. Wellness, as they say, begins in the mind.”