The “free-from” trend has taken off in recent years and shows no signs of slowing down. What was once a very niche market is now becoming the norm on supermarket shelves across the globe, and growth is expected to continue as consumers adopt increasingly healthier lifestyles.
The largest segment of free-from is gluten-free, which is projected to be worth an impressive US$7.38 billion worldwide by 2021, with a CAGR of almost 12 percent.
In Asia Pacific, free-from and particularly gluten-free is expected to see significant growth in coming years, led by improved labelling regulations, innovation in tastier allergen-free food products, growing disposable incomes and increasing per capita spend on functional foods.
The number of new free-from product launches grew by 120 percent in Asia Pacific between 2009 and 2013, and Australasia, joint with North America, are the most active regions globally in terms of free-from product innovation.
Making The Transition From Niche To Mainstream
Originally developed to cater to those with special dietary needs, free-from products, which include foods without dairy, egg, gluten, lactose, sugar, nuts, soya, wheat and other allergens, are appealing to a far broader consumer base than those forced to restrict their diets for medical reasons.
Free-from food has become a lifestyle choice for shoppers looking to adopt a healthier diet in general. According to a 2015 Mintel report, 84 percent of free-from consumers in the US buy free-from products because they are seeking more natural, ‘less processed’ foods.
As such, the category is spreading further into the mainstream, with the line between regular food offerings and free-from becoming increasingly blurred, in terms of quality, taste and price. Soon, there will no longer be separate shelves in the supermarkets for free-from products and instead free-from goods will be spread out across the store in a variety of categories, as they become the new normal for consumers.
A Growing Trend For Functional Free-From Foods
Despite these positive advances into the mainstream, free-from is still a relatively small category. One of the highest potential growth areas lies within healthy eating and functional foods. In fact, Mintel predicts ‘healthier alternatives’ to be one of four ‘mega-trends’ that will shape the Asia Pacific food and beverage innovation space in the next five years.
Functional foods contain ingredients that have healthpromoting, energy boosting and/or disease preventing benefits. Largely untapped on a global scale, functional foods offer a good opportunity for growth in product innovation— in the last five years of all food launches in the Asia Pacific region, only eight percent were functional, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database.
So what can the food and beverage industry do to take advantage of this?
The answer, of course, lies in innovation. All this demand presents a major opportunity for brands to release healthy free-from options. However, it is no longer enough for free-from foods to be made without allergen ingredients, they also need to taste good and be highly nutritious. For both retailers and manufacturers, improving the quality and selection of free-from products is key to capitalising on this growth.
Baobab: The Superfruit From The ‘Tree Of Life’
One innovative ingredient that ticks all the boxes is baobab—the ancient super fruit of Africa’s ‘Tree of Life’. Baobab fruit is one of the most nutritious foods in the world. Used by women in Africa as a source of health and wellbeing for centuries, it has only recently started to gain traction outside the continent.
Baobab fruit is unique in that it dries naturally on the branch. Within its hard coconut-like shell, the fruit pulp bakes in the sunshine, drying out completely. It just needs to be harvested, deseeded and sieved to produce a 100 percent natural and organic fruit powder. With a natural shelf-life of three years, it requires no freeze drying, refrigeration or special transport requirements—pretty handy for exporting from rural Africa.
What Does It Taste Like & What Is It Good For?
Baobab powder is exceptionally rich in vitamin C—gram for gram, it has six times the vitamin C of an orange—supporting energy release, immunity and healthy skin. It is also almost 50 percent fibre, half of which is soluble and half insoluble, supporting healthy digestion and slowing down the absorption of sugar into the blood stream.
According to the Journal of Nutrition, baobab contains more antioxidants than any other whole fruit, helping support younger-looking, radiant skin.
Baobab powder has a delicious, sweet and citrussy flavour—a bit like healthy sherbet. Naturally free-from gluten, dairy and wheat, and with no additives, preservatives or added sugar, baobab powder is a perfect ingredient for free-from products.
Baobab Superfruit: The Next Big Thing In Free-From
Taking all this into account, it is no surprise that baobab is making waves in the free-from industry. Mintel recently proclaimed baobab to be “the next big thing” in gluten and grain-free baking thanks to its ability to provide an alternative to wheat flour in grain- and gluten-free cookies, pancakes, muffins and more.
Baobab is already making waves as an ingredient in the beverage industry with smoothie and juice manufacturer Innocent Drinks using it in their ‘Gorgeous Greens’ smoothie and Coca-Cola including baobab extract in a new low-calorie soft drink for their Aquarius Vive brand in the Spanish market.
To pigeon-hole baobab as a baking or beverage ingredient however, would be to limit its full potential. Its impressive nutritional profile and unique taste makes baobab ideal for mixing into a wide variety of foods including yoghurt, ice-cream, snacks, sauces, soups, breakfast cereals, energy bars and more.
According to Mintel’s New Product Database, hundreds of manufacturers are already innovating products with baobab as an ingredient, a trend which is expected to continue as consumer and industry awareness of the fruit increases.
Baobab Social Impact
Baobab also has such high potential because of its social impact. The trees grow in the most remote, rural parts of 32 African countries. There is no such thing as a baobab plantation: every tree is community or family owned and wild-harvested.
An estimated 10 million rural households can provide baobab from the existing crop—it is currently so abundant that the majority goes to waste. National Geographic estimated that a global demand for baobab could be worth as much as a billion dollars to rural Africa every year.
This is important from a product innovation’s point of view due to the growing momentum of the “conscious consumerism” movement. Today, more than ever, consumers are considering the provenance, quality and sustainability of the products that they buy.
A Nielsen study in 2014 found that 55 percent of global consumers are willing to pay more for products with a positive social and environmental impact with shoppers in Asia Pacific showing the highest propensity to buy from socially responsible brands (64 percent).
Incorporating ingredients with a significant and demonstrable social impact is becoming increasingly important in new product development and is another reason why baobab is experiencing such high interest.
Baobab is still at a relatively early stage of its growth cycle and the future is looking bright. Its delicious flavour, remarkable health benefits and ability to transform the lives of millions of rural African households, makes the fruit a hugely exciting ingredient to experiment with and we look forward to seeing it included in more and more free-from products.