Foods labelled as free from allergens are gaining ground with a wider audience of consumers
Concerned consumers are now just as likely to scan product labels for known allergens as they are for healthy ingredients. To those with a medically diagnosed food allergy, contact with certain foods such as peanuts or shellfish can mean myriad symptoms, with sometimes-fatal consequences. However, the appeal of avoiding allergens has widened beyond those consumers diagnosed with a food allergy, providing food manufacturers with opportunities to develop new products or extend existing brands.
Perception and reality
New research from U.K.-based independent research organization Leatherhead Food Research indicates that two different sets of consumers are purchasing foods labelled as “free from” allergens such as gluten, dairy and wheat. The first are those they call the “self-diagnosers,” or those who have identified an intolerance to certain foods. Their sensitivity stems from a previous adverse reaction such as a gastrointestinal (GI) complaint. The second group are consumers who perceive “free from” foods as somehow healthier than other food products.
This March Leatherhead’s senior market analyst Laura Kempster spoke with BBC Radio 4′s Food Programme in its investigation of “free from” foods. She noted that the top three reasons why consumers are attracted to “free from” foods are that these products are seen as helping to maintain a healthy balanced diet. In addition, they help consumers cope with existing conditions while improving their digestive health. “They really believe ‘free from’ foods are a part of a healthier lifestyle essentially,” said Kempster.
Dietitian and nutritionist Susan Fyshe of Toronto, Ont.-based Healthy Lifestyle Nutrition Consulting, sees more clients in her practice with food sensitivities today than in the past. While noting that Canada has one of the highest rates of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in the world, Fyshe also acknowledges that some people are simply following trends. Gluten-free diets are just one example. “A lot of people are doing it now because it seems like something they should be doing, rather than what they need to be doing,” she says.
In fact, according to Health and Wellness Trends for Canada and the World, a report released in October 2011 by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the North American market for food intolerance products has grown into one of the world’s largest, representing 43 per cent of global sales in 2010. In Canada, it’s valued at US$161.3 million. The dairy- and lactose-free market is currently the largest of these markets, with estimated sales of US$3.6 billion in 2010, according to the Leatherhead report Food Allergies and Intolerances: Consumer Perceptions and Market Opportunities for “Free From” Foods. However, it is the gluten-free market that shows the strongest growth potential in upcoming years.
Kempster believes areas for opportunity include the creation of new categories. For instance, the main categories for gluten-free products have traditionally focused on bakery products such as bread, biscuits and cakes. But, she says, “Things like gluten-free claims are increasingly being found on baby food products, within the sauces and seasoning category, as well as snacks, which represents quite an area to watch.” New areas of opportunity include baked goods featuring gluten-free flours made from nuts (almond, peanut and walnut) or pulses.