Nothing in life is free.
However, “free” is all the rage in grocery stores nationwide as free from and gluten-free products are taking the aisles by storm. Conceived for consumers with medical issues like celiac disease, diabetes and other food intolerances, gluten-free groceries—along with items that are free from common allergens and other ingredients—have reached the masses.
Although having gluten-free and free from products are a medical necessity for a small percentage of the population, more shoppers are incorporating these items into their diets. “Many people, celiac or not, are seeing the health benefits of living a gluten-free lifestyle,” says Michael Smulders, president of East Hartford, Conn.-based Bakery On Main. “This lifestyle helps people feel better, and with the growing amount of products available, it is becoming an easier lifestyle to follow.”
Gluten-free has also become a billion-dollar category that is expected to experience continued growth. This year, the global market for gluten-free products was valued at $4.6 billion, and it is projected to reach $7.6 billion by 2020, according to the Gluten-Free Products Market Report from India-based market research firm Market and Markets. With an expected CAGR of 10.4 percent over the next five years, industry observers say it is imperative for grocers to stay abreast of the gluten-free and free from trends that are resonating with consumers.
“Retailers can’t just roll with the category,” says Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer for Chicago-based Enjoy Life Foods. “It’s going to take some real study to become experts in this category, but it’s worth doing because the free from shopper spends a lot more money in the store than the regular shopper.”
Gluten-free and free from shoppers look for a variety of product attributes that will benefit their health and well-being. For consumers suffering from celiac disease or for those that are gluten intolerant and/or gluten sensitive, cross contamination is a concern. “Even a small amount of gluten can make them very sick, so consumers need to know they can feel safe when consuming a given product,” Smulders says.
As a result, clear and accurate food labeling has become important to consumers that purchase these products to meet their strict diets. “Gluten-free certification clearly marked on packaging is critical so consumers can be confident in the ingredients and manufacturing processes of the products they consume,” says Joe Driscoll, vice president of marketing for Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP, based in Mankato, Minn.
Becoming Certified Gluten-Free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization has become standard practice for manufacturers of these products, as it is of utmost importance to consumers affected by celiac disease or other medical aliments. However, a Certified Gluten-Free logo alone is not enough to capture the gluten-free consumer. Once their medical needs are met, a variety of other factors are essential in creating loyalty with these shoppers.
“Gluten-free consumers are now looking for more than just having that medical need met,” says Cara Figgins, vice president of Partners, A Tasteful Choice Company, based in Kent, Wash. “They want taste, variety, quality and specialty food items.”
Manufacturers have been responding to these desires. “Improved food technology has allowed manufacturers to provide better tasting alternatives,” says Karen Toufayan, vice president of marketing and sales for Ridgefield, N.J.-based Toufayan Bakeries. “And because there is little taste trade-offs, more consumers are sticking with these products.”
Quality, taste and texture are attributes that many manufacturers of gluten-free and free from products are hanging their hats on. Sameer Shah, vice president of marketing at Smart Flour Foods, based in Austin, Texas, says that taste, texture and nutrition were paramount as Smart Flour developed its line of frozen ancient-grain based pizzas. “If you talk to people that have had to live with a free from diet for a long time, their immediate frustration is the food doesn’t taste good, and the second thing they’re concerned about is nutrition,” Shah says. “Making sure that our products offered powerful nutrition was important to us.”
The company’s proprietary flour blend contains three ancient grains: sorghum, amaranth and teff. “Because our products are made from unadulterated ancient grains, they have naturally high occurrences of calcium, iron, protein and fiber, making the pizza a healthier indulgence,” Shah adds. The company’s products, all certified gluten-free, are also free from preservatives and hormones.
Free From More Than Gluten
Gluten-free is just one subset of the overall free from umbrella, says Warady. “Free from is where you’re going to see continued explosive growth,” he says.
According to the Free From Food Trends U.S. 2015 report conducted by Chicago-based Mintel, 84 percent of free from consumers buy free from foods because they are seeking out more natural or less processed foods.
“The free from community is growing not only due to the increase presence of health issues associated with diet but due to the perception that free from is just healthier,” says Chloe Epstein, president and co-founder of New York-based Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Co.
In fact, nearly half of consumers (43 percent) believe free from foods are healthier than foods without a free from claim, and 59 percent of consumers believe that the fewer ingredients a product has, the healthier it is, according to the Mintel report.
“Many free from products substitute ingredients that are worse for you than they would be with the gluten, dairy, fat, etc.,” Epstein adds. “They are producing products free of gluten, for example, but with more fat, sugar, calories and less fiber. It is not enough to eliminate an ingredient, it needs to be eliminated altogether or replaced with something better. It is important that that truly is the case.”
Products that are free from gluten, dairy, soy and nuts have become popular with today’s discerning consumers, however, another free from attribute emerging as trend has become even more important to the free from shopper: GMO-free. More than half of consumers (58 percent) say that GMO-free claims are important, with 35 percent ranking it as one of their top three most important claims, according to the Mintel report. Non-GMO products will be very important moving forward, says Bob Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Blount Fine Foods, based in Fall River, Mass. Manufacturers, like Blount, are taking the trend seriously and are working diligently to get their products Non-GMO Project Verified.
“We’re the only company that has GMO-free soups and sides,” Sewall says. “We’ve gone through the process and have verified each ingredient from our vendors, as well as having to submit those to the government. We’re certified GMO-free, and we take it very seriously.”
Lundberg Family Farms, the Richvale, Calif.-based manufacturer of gluten-free and whole grain rice products, has also recognized that non-GMO products are striking a chord with consumers. “We recognize that today’s consumers are smart and want to know more about the ingredients that are in the products they buy and eat,” says Janet Souza, PR and marketing manager for Lundberg Family Farms.
Gluten-free and free from products are important for retailers to incorporate in categories that span across the entire grocery store. However, with consumers snacking daily more than ever it would be wise for retailers to consider snacks an important category to incorporate these items into.
Nearly half of consumers (46 percent) agree that snacks typically include controversial ingredients when compared to other food categories, according to the Mintel report. Snack manufacturers are innovating in an effort to change that perception. Nature’s Bakery, based in Reno, Nev., unveiled a line of Gluten-Free Fig Bars earlier this year.
“Creating a gluten-free fig bar was a big deal for us as a company, as it was the next item we created after our popular line of Stone Ground Whole Wheat Fig Bars,” says Sam Marson, co-founder of Nature’s Bakery. “For us, it is capitalizing on the idea of on-the-go snacks. Many times, those with specific dietary restrictions can’t quickly grab and go. We like to think we help make their lives a little more convenient.”
Michelle Suhrie, vice president of marketing for Waukegan, Ill.-based Cornfields, says the quantity of gluten-free snacks used to be very limited. “Thanks to innovation around vegetables, legumes and alternative grains in the category, we are now seeing these ingredients pop up in the gluten-free category,” she says.