Allergen-free foods gain momentum

5 Nov 2018

Launches of allergen-free foods have increased in recent years – and not just because of increased prevalence of food allergy.

Allergen-free foods gain momentum

More Europeans than ever are thought to suffer from a food allergy, with up to 17% of the population now affected, according to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Prevalence is more common among children, and allergic reactions can be very serious, sometimes even fatal, meaning food manufacturers are under pressure to ensure their foods are safe for allergic consumers.

Under EU law, the food industry must list the 14 most common food allergens on product packaging: peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, mustard, eggs, lupin, milk, fish, cereals containing gluten, celery, sesame, sulphur dioxide, molluscs and crustaceans. For products that do not intentionally contain these ingredients, current industry best practice is to take precautions to avoid cross contamination and to alert consumers to their possible presence.

However, a growing number of companies has started producing allergen-free foods and drinks. According to Euromonitor International, total free from sales in Western Europe increased 11.7% in 2017, and 8.7% in Eastern Europe – and most of the sales growth did not come from consumers with allergies. In particular, foods and drinks with a lactose-free or gluten-free positioning have gained a strong presence, with many consumers identifying such products as healthier and easier to digest, and reporting that they feel better consuming them.

Plant-based milk and dairy alternatives have been a key driver for the lactose-free market, as a growing number of consumers choose to switch out cow’s milk, often citing health, animal welfare and environmental reasons, rather than allergies. Indeed, the global market for dairy alternatives drinks alone has more than doubled in value since 2010, according to Innova Market Insights, and new dairy alternative product launches grew 20% a year from 2012 to 2016.

Meanwhile, naturally gluten free grains and pseudo-grains, such as amaranth, quinoa, chia and sorghum are on the rise, offering a nutritional boost and improved texture in gluten free baked goods and snacks. According to Mintel, the number of new foods and drinks launched globally containing chia, for example, grew 70% from 2014 to 2015, while those containing quinoa rose 27%.

This rapidly rising interest in allergen-free products has prompted ingredient companies to develop new ingredients for the allergen-free market, and to highlight existing ones. Companies including Palsgaard, Hydrosol and DuPont Nutrition & Health have introduced ingredients to deal with the taste, stability and textural issues that many plant-derived dairy alternatives face, while Jungbunzlauer has launched a range of minerals specifically for fortifying such products. Avebe and Roquette highlight their potato protein and pea protein ingredients respectively for their allergen-free credentials, while BENEO has a strong allergen-free platform for its specialty rice ingredients.

According to Mintel, the ‘health halo’ of allergen-free foods and drinks is a key purchase driver, but their nutritional profile must match consumer expectations for healthy products. Its research found that over half of UK free from consumers would stop eating these products if they thought they were less healthy than standard foods, such as being higher in sugar or salt.

Food allergies may not be the main market driver, but their increasing prevalence means many more people live in households where certain ingredients are off limits for the whole family, and these non-allergic consumers are looking for alternatives too. As a result, the rise of allergen-free foods looks set to continue as it taps into so many current market trends, including for more sustainable, more wholesome and minimally processed foods.

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