‘Free from’ typically refers to the non-inclusion of wheat, gluten and dairy and is therefore perceived by consumers as healthier, but today’s products also boast MSG-free, vegan, halal and kosher too. The latest trend in free from foods is so full of claims, that you could be forgiven for wondering whether certain food products contain any ingredients at all. Some recent product launches have even become advertising boards for ingredients that they do not contain, rather than highlighting the actual positives of the product themselves.
Most consumers don’t actually need products that are free from gluten, wheat and dairy, but are demanding them anyway. The industry has little choice but to respond and the recent surge in mainstream gluten-free products has been incredible. Other free from platforms are expanding as well, such as dairy-free, egg-free or even vegan.
The interesting issue with gluten-free is how consumers with a gluten intolerance or sensitivity are no longer the only target group. A large proportion of consumers buys gluten-free because it is ‘better for me’ or for weight management, according to HealthFocus data.
While there is still virtually no evidence that gluten-free is actually better for you, consumer perception is the manufacturer’s reality, and many have simply jumped on the bandwagon. Of course, there is a potential market for entire households, whereby one family member suffers from celiac disease, and other family members will also eat gluten-free.
A recent survey for bakery ingredient supplier Puratos, taken among 11,000 consumers in 25 countries, noted how consumers are being bombarded by all kinds of messages on what is and is not good for them. The amount of information is confusing and leads to the creation of food myths.
For instance, 40 percent of Europeans, 42 percent of Asians and 45 percent of Americans believe that gluten can cause digestive problems for the majority of consumers. However the truth of the matter is that only an estimated 6-10 percent of the global population suffers from gluten-related disorders.
There have always been gluten-free options in the specialist aisle, but if we look at gluten-free launches attributed to ‘big’ companies in 2014, they accounted for an 11 percent share. This is up significantly from 7.6 percent in 2010. The share of gluten-free positioned products jumped from 5.2 percent to 9.4 percent of global food & beverage launches from 2010 to 2014.
North America (19.7 percent) and Latin America (19.8 percent) dominated for products featuring a gluten-free claim in 2014, with Australasia just behind (18.4 percent). It is important to note that the large number of Latin American launches is influenced by the Brazilian regulation around listing of allergens and is not entirely down to innovation.
Active Sectors For Gluten-Free
Key areas for gluten-free activity in recent years have been in bakery and cereal products and snack foods, largely because of rising demand for alternatives to the relatively high number of gluten-containing lines in these sectors, or because of the availability of alternative gluten-free ingredients. In fact, nowhere is the gluten-free trend more visible than in the cereals category. With five times as many products tracked in 2015, compared to 2011, the penetration increased from seven percent to 23 percent.
The cereal products market, encompassing breakfast cereals and cereal bars, is relatively well set up to cater to the gluten-free trend, with numerous non-gluten cereal options already available. As a result of this and the relatively concentrated nature of the market, it is perhaps not surprising that the share of gluten-free launches in the cereals market is much higher than the average of the food and drinks market as a whole at 21 percent, rising to an incredible 43 percent in the US. Interestingly, despite being one of the product categories most strongly associated with wheat and thus gluten, the bakery products sector has a slightly lower than average share of gluten-free launches recorded, at nine percent, perhaps partly reflecting the diversity of the sector and the high levels of new product activity overall.
The actual number of gluten-free bakery launches has nonetheless risen consistently in recent years. Biscuits account for the largest number of gluten-free bakery launches, with over 40 percent, equivalent to eight percent of total biscuit introductions, while bread has less than 16 percent of gluten-free bakery launches, but this is equivalent to nine percent of total bread introductions. The gluten-free bakery trend shows no signs of slowing down and some ingredients to watch will include: rice, corn, sorghum, buckwheat, millet, pea, oats, quinoa, amaranth and teff. An analysis of the penetration of new bakery products with a gluten-free positioning found that 9.3 percent of global launches tracked in the second quarter of 2015 had a gluten-free positioning. This is up from 4.5 percent in the first quarter of 2012.
The snacks market is also seeing a relatively high proportion of launches featuring gluten-free claims, averaging 13 percent globally, but rising to over 42 percent in the US. In terms of product and market development, the snacks market benefits particularly from the fact that many basic snacks ingredients, such as potatoes, corn, soy and nuts, are naturally gluten-free, so it is a claim that is relatively easy to achieve in many instances.
Ingredients used to replace wheat or other cereals and offer a gluten-free formulation over the past few years have included lentils, black beans, navy beans, cassava, brown rice, nuts, sweet potatoes and a wide variety of other vegetables.
Many other areas of the food and drinks market are also seeing rising levels of interest in gluten-free reformulations, or just in emphasising the gluten-free nature of existing lines.
The Gluten-Free Backlash
Despite all the positives and rapid proliferation of glutenfree formulations, there is a backlash against unnecessary gluten-free positioning, both from industry and academics. According to Professor Fred Brouns of Maastricht University, who is involved in the EU Health Grain program around the nutritional properties of grains, celiac disease affects only one percent (range 0.5-3 percent) of the population, whereas true wheat allergy is very rare, affecting only less than 0.2 percent of the population.
Therefore, the question arises as to why so many individuals (in some countries as much as 30 percent) say they feel more comfortable on a gluten-free or wheat-free diet, or when consuming ancient wheat.
Still, gluten-free bakery solutions have been a key trend for a while now, and manufacturers have come up with products aimed at celiacs and consumers concerned with gluten content, yet who wish to bake. One example is by Bakels who launched a gluten-free multiseed bread mix which allows for the creation of ciabatta style products and crusty breads.
VitaSafe by France-based yeast supplier Lesaffre is a similar solution—it is a range of healthy free mixes and premixes which can be used to make gluten-free breads, pizzas, cakes and pastries with a taste and texture similar to ‘classic’ bread products. It is claimed to guarantee “real food safety for people who have to follow a gluten-free diet.”
However, currently trending as an ingredient is chia. The seed from South America has health-promoting properties, makes dough processing easier and presents great potential for bakers. It is not only used in refinement of bread and other bakery products, but can also be processed as a substitute for wheat flour or eggs and is therefore ideal for vegans and persons who are allergic to gluten.
Even with gluten-free products, texture is still an important aspect for manufacturers to achieve so as to appeal to consumers. To cater to this, most recently Ingredion has launched a texturising system. This highly functional gluten-free texturising system consists of three components, perfectly balanced to enable manufacturers to optimise the texture of their products.
Labelled as modified tapioca starch, maize starch and potato starch, the gluten-free starch system is ideal for manufacturers looking to create soft and resilient gluten-free baked goods such as sandwich breads, buns, muffins and cakes.
Other innovations are evident, allowing celiac sufferers to break down gluten, so they can consume gluten containing foods. DSM claims to have launched the first and the only digestive enzyme demonstrated to effectively break down residual gluten in the stomach to the US dietary supplement market. They claim this is ideal for the growing number of gluten sensitive consumers following a gluten-free diet who want help digesting hidden or residual gluten that may be found in a broad range of foods.
Anticipating Free From
‘Free from’ has entered the mainstream and for clever industry players, the opportunity offers a true free for all. Just how far things go before consumers become highly sceptical of the claims being made remains to be seen.