The meaning of the phrase “free from” has evolved greatly over the years as cases of nut allergies and gluten sensitivities continue to rise. Free from, however, no longer encompasses only the top allergens and has since been broadened to even include GMOs and synthetic ingredients.
Formerly produced only by niche manufacturers, specialty and free-from products are now the darlings of many major brands. Retailers are also following suit by adding a wider assortment of free-from items to their private label lines as well.
One of the most notable free-from private label lines is Batavia, Ill.-based Aldi’s LiveGfree portfolio, which has been integral to the retailer’s success in recent years, according to industry observers. Created in 2014, the brand is completely gluten-free and includes a variety of foods that typically contain gluten, such as crackers, cookies and frozen pizza.
Numerous retailers are using the term free from to describe to consumers that their products are all-natural and do not contain any synthetic ingredients, and these lines have seen wild success. For example, ShopRite, a banner of Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern Food Corp., has introduced more than 210 products under its Wholesome Pantry brand since launching it in December. The company reports that the popular new line, which is free from 110 artificial ingredients, has been one of the fastest-growing private label lines ever launched in the company’s 70-year history, according to company officials.
Additionally, Cincinnati-based Kroger recently expanded its Simple Truth line, which is free from over 101 artificial ingredients, and Carlisle, Pa.-based Ahold’s Nature’s Promise continues to offer items free from an extended list of synthetic ingredients, which the retailer has stretched to include nonfoods items such as cleaning supplies.
Craig Spalding, director of marketing for Boulder, Colo.-based 1908 Brands, says that as the number of free-from products in the marketplace continues to grow, retailers should explore new ways to educate their customers on the effects of allergens and the growing number of people developing food allergies every year.
“This can be done successfully through retailer wellness programs or campaigns with brand partners,” Spalding says. “In addition, retailers can spruce up the ‘free-from’ category by continuing to introduce new brands—these consumers are always willing to try new and innovative products and brands that fit their special diets.”
Retailers have plenty of opportunities to connect with their customers who have dietary restrictions or are suffering from food allergies. For example, during the 2017 Halloween season, Hy-Vee and Ahold USA both participated in the Osage Beach, Miss.-based FARE’s (Food Allergy Research and Education) Teal Pumpkin Project, aimed to spread awareness of children’s food allergies around the Halloween season. Hy-Vee threw a food allergy-themed event in Teal Pumpkin’s honor, donating a separate bucket of nonfood treats to each booth for kids with food allergies. The retailer also provided children with food allergies a teal bag or necklace at the entrance and donated the proceeds to two local charities.
Some retailers are also offering education on their websites for shoppers with dietary restrictions. Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market, which offers more than 2,500 gluten-free items across its shelves, provides online resources for gluten-free customers such as a recipe book fielded from some of the retailer’s favorite bloggers and a guide to pantry staples for those eating gluten-free. Sprouts even put together a guide to “good-tasting” gluten-free items it carries on its shelves, naming brands such as Schar Breads, House Foods Noodles Shirataki, Bakery on Main True Bars, Pamela’s Pancake Mix and Amy’s Pizza.
Lola O’Rourke, education supervisor with the Gluten Intolerance Group, says in-store sampling is an important way to connect with gluten-free consumers, who she says are looking for more than just a reliably gluten-free product.
“They want foods that fit in with a nutritious, delicious and convenient way of eating,” she says. “New products tend to be of particular interest, and sampling these in-store is an effective way for consumers to discover new favorites. Similarly, gluten-free shoppers are often attracted to in-store demonstrations of creative and time-saving ways to use new gluten-free ingredients. Highlighting nutrition benefits of sampled items is an extra plus for these health-conscious consumers.”
Free From is Growing
Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer for Chicago-
based Enjoy Life Foods, says that with the rate of reported food allergies tripling in the last 20-30 years, per a report by Fair Health, it’s apparent free-from snacking isn’t slowing down. “It’s evident that consumers are in need of products that are free from allergens but are still delicious, clean and fulfilling,” he says, adding that the free-from industry is slated to reach $20 billion by 2020.
Warady also says that making sure these consumers have the variety of offerings they need could significantly help boost revenue, as consumers are willing to pay more for free-from products: The average shopper spends $46 per basket, while the average free-from shopper spends $102 per basket.
Don't Forget About Dairy
While nut allergies and gluten intolerance tend to get most of the attention, lactose intolerance and vegan dieting is also widespread across the country.
According to Nielsen data released by the Plant Based Foods Association and Good Food Institute, plant-based dairy alternatives are a fast-growing category, with 20% growth, topping $700 million in sales over the past year. The data also showed that the plant-based milk category is up 3.1% since last year, while sales of cow’s milk were down 5%.