The free-from phenomenon

Free-from covers a wide range of foods, many of which were once sold only in specialist outlets. Some were considered a fad but are now available even as private label products from the leading retail chains. Highly evolved consumer profiling enables shops to experiment with what they sell.

Today’s free-from products are manufactured by the global food industry’s major players, sometimes actively involved in product development with the chains. Free-from is clearly an opportunity for companies such as Valio that have the expertise to manufacture the product or license the technology.

A general history

Milk (lactose intolerance) and wheat (coeliac disease) are perhaps the two best known examples of otherwise healthy foods which contain a single component (lactose and gluten respectively) that causes adverse reactions in a portion of the population. 

Both conditions were identified anecdotally at least two thousand years ago, then more concretely proven by science in the mid-nineteenth century, and brought into the public domain in the mid-twentieth century at which point the only solutions were a dairy free or wheat free diet. Gluten free and lactose free foods are now readily available, and in a strange twist are being consumed by people who don’t have a specific need to do so, but identify with them as lifestyle products.

Different perspectives

It seems clear that free-from doesn’t hold the same meaning for everybody and for every food. For those who have a specific need, who are allergic to something or cannot tolerate it, the consumer benefit is clearly free-from. For a broader audience, free-from may be seen as an additional benefit where e.g. lactose free is not the product’s key feature.

Consumers often direct responsibility at food when they have stomach problems e.g. IBS, and are drawn to lactose free products. Some consumers simply feel that free-from products are in a sense better for them than normal products, even if they don’t need them for health reasons. Buying lactose free products makes life simpler and less stressful for families with e.g. one lactose intolerant member and for serving guests. Buying decisions may also be based on anecdotal evidence such as gluten free foods being good for the skin.

Today’s major free-froms are still lactose and gluten

Gluten free is increasingly high profile as there are so many product classes that need gluten free alternatives, such as bakery products, flours, breakfast cereals and pasta.

The first free from lactose dairy foods were also free from dairy! Milks, yoghurts, desserts and ice creams made from soybeans (soya free is simultaneously a free-from category) were once the most common of these and date back to around the 1960s when “alternative” was a buzzword in developed societies. Others include coconut and almond milks. The first genuinely lactose free milk became available in 2001 courtesy of Valio. That coincides with the point at which the contemporary free-from trend is said to have begun. It has gathered pace significantly in the last few years and is expected to keep on growing.

What we take out

Free-from foods now also exclude components such as meat (i.e. vegetarian products, perhaps the biggest free-from of all), fish, dairy as a whole, wheat, eggs, nuts and so on, plus additives and preservatives. One solution to the latter i.e. organic products might appear to be obvious but some schools of thought do not consider organic a truly free-from category.

Where we take it from

The dairy category appears in the class of foods from which a key component is excluded i.e. lactose, while its other elements are trend dependent. Like all fashions these come and go over the years and the challenge for the industry is to anticipate them. The low fat and fat free qualities in vogue for so long are of late giving ground to natural, higher energy, higher sugar products, and more indulgence items. It seems we now want more protein and even carbohydrates. It should be noted that there is a significant difference between free-from and “less” e.g. fat and calories.

Another significant category from which components are removed is bakery products where gluten, milk powder – for milk allergy as well as lactose intolerance – fat and so on are at issue. Then there are newer marginal but growing items such as beer. Calf-based rennet in cheese used to be a particular bugbear for vegans and some vegetarians, but vegetable rennets are now in common use. Animal fats for cooking were a similar case but e.g. rape-seed oil became a popular solution.

The free-from megatrends

There are two identifiable megatrends, naturalness and overall well-being, that most influence free-from consumption patterns. We’re looking to get back to basics with nutrition as we’ve arguably been heading in the wrong direction for some time, adding more and more elements that consumers don’t always fully understand and in some cases fear such as e numbers. E621 (monosodiumglutimate) is a case in point and eventually forced many meat product manufacturers to remove it from their products.

Transparency and understanding

Consumers want to know precisely what they are putting in their mouth, where their food comes from, what’s in it in terms of e.g. additives, how and how well it’s made and who made it. These are all aspects of origin and transparency within the supply chain.

We are looking almost nostalgically for simpler food we can rely on, purity with minimal processing. Consumers’ desire to return to their roots is in fact stronger than ever.