Peruse your grocery store aisles with real attention lately? If it seemed to you like there are more free-from products cropping up alongside traditional brands, it's not all in your imagination--and it's not all about allergies, either.
The legitimate physical need
Experts note that it can be difficult to determine the extent of the allergy problem due to self-diagnosis and misinterpretation of symptoms. Even so, the number of people dealing with them is thought to be getting worse, not better.
- The number of insurance claims filed for severe allergic reaction to food has ballooned 377 percent over the last decade, according to Fair Health.
- The prevalence of food allergy in children increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.
- The overall prevalence of food allergy has tripled in the past 20 to 30 years, according to pediatric allergy and immunology specialist Dr. Johnathan Hemler of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
In this context, free-from companies do have a natural opportunity for growth as they respond to the individuals who truly require "clean" products. And even companies that don't specialize in free-from foods--for example, producers of corn and potatoes--are seeing sales increase as people look for foods that don't contain problematic ingredients.
The desire for medicinal food
Today's consumers face an onslaught of health concerns ranging from Alzheimer's and cancer to obesity and heart disease. Subsequently, even people without allergies--particularly health-oriented millennials--are looking to food as preventative medicine. They're choosing foods and beverages without allergens because they think they'll support digestion, weight management and overall well-being. According to Mintel, for example, 43 percent of consumers say free-from foods are healthier than those without a free-from claim, while 59 percent say a product is healthier the fewer ingredients it has.
"I think clean, simple ingredients and platforms are where all consumers are going," says Justin LaGosh, Managing Director Sales and Marketing for SunButter. "Consumers as a whole are prioritizing products made with ingredients they can pronounce. The notion of the 'health consumer' is growing at an exponential rate. [The millennial population] has a greater share of wallet in a lot of industries, including food. They're spending more on health and themselves, which include options for free-from and natural foods."
"Part of our strategy," LaGosh continues, "is to change the conversation about being a 'pharmaceutical food' just for the 4 percent in the U.S. with food allergies. Today the macro trend is simple ingredients, delicious flavor--knowing where your food comes from and what you are putting in your body. SunButter is aligned to fulfill this macro trend [...]."
Ethics matter, too
For plenty of people, using free-from foods isn't just about their own health. It's also about the health of the planet or consideration of animal life. There's growing awareness of climate change and pollution, as well as of animal production and slaughter practices. The value of authenticity within brands has grown in this context.
"While we have a lot of consumers who are vegan or vegetarian, the majority of our consumers are what we call flexitarians, who eat a variety of animal and plant-based diets," says Michael Lynch, VP of Marketing at Daiya Foods. "These consumers eat plant-based foods because they know they're more healthy and they're better for the planet, and, certainly, for animals."
Technology is in good taste
Lynch agrees with LaGosh that technology will help propel free-from companies to further success.
"[Consumers] don't want to make a compromise on taste and texture," Lynch asserts. "New innovation technology is now being developed to eliminate that compromise."
LaGosh claims we have the opportunity to uncover new superfoods that are relatively unknown for their environmental effect and nutritional punch, and that technology can help drive these discoveries. But another big benefit is simply increasing access to free-from products.
"I don't think technology necessarily changes the fact that free-from foods are trending," he says. "What technology does is contribute to ease of access and ease of distribution of better-for-you food options. Allowing and promoting this increased availability is the contributing role technology will play."
In this regard, agreements between other companies are extremely influential.
"We're excited about the Amazon acquisition of Whole Foods," Lynch says, "because it should create a more efficient way for consumers to purchase our refrigerated and frozen products online, due to Amazon's vast home delivery network."
LaGosh has the same view. "With Walmart's expansion into the grocery sector and Amazon's partnership with Whole Foods, among other major industry innovations, technology combined with larger grocery retailers will help in reducing the problem with availability on any grocery items."
Part clear intention, part pure luck
In the end, most free-from companies have a legitimate desire to help consumers. But they're also benefiting from multiple circumstances. Changing consumer perceptions, real health and environmental crises, booming technologies and even how specific companies are aligning themselves together all are making free-from businesses look incredibly attractive. With Lynch's and LaGosh's companies as examples, Daiya has seen overall growth jump 36 percent over the past 52 weeks, and Sunbutter has seen sales double, selling 2.5 million jars versus 1 million jars in the same time frame in 2014. Under a broader scope, Food Navigator-USA projects that, in the United States, the free-from category will nearly double in value from $6.5 billion to $12 billion by 2020. And looking globally, Euromonitor International claims that free-from foods increased 7 percent to reach $32 billion in 2016.
"We continue to see increasing evidence that plant-based or animal-free products will continue to grow at rapid rates, on a global basis, into the foreseeable future," concludes Lynch. "We don't see this as a trend, but rather a fundamental shift in consumer eating."