To some degree, food products with “free from” claims, especially those with gluten-free and dairy-free claims, have been on the market for years. In recent years, however, the number and diversity of products with claims relating to allergen-free status has grown much larger. With the passage of an FDA regulation defining gluten-free claims at <20 ppm gluten, the gluten-free market niche has been very active in recent years. Dairy-free products have been available for some time, but the terminology can differ now, with labels that include dairy-free, milk-free, lactose-free, and non-dairy phrasing.
Additional free-from claims have started to appear in the marketplace, including nut-free, peanut-free, egg-free, soy-free, and even allergen-free terminology that goes beyond the required labeling. Compared with gluten-free claims, the number of products available in the market with other free-from claims is smaller and less diverse. Food products with “free” claims definitely appeal to the segment of the market representing consumers with allergies and related illnesses to specific foods. Additionally, some consumers are also known to select products with gluten-free labels based more on their personal lifestyle choice rather than a clinical need for avoidance of gluten. Presumably, the same behavior also occurs when it comes to products with other free-from claims.
While market opportunities exist for food products with free-from claims, potential risks also exist and must be avoided when using these claims. Let’s examine both sides of this issue, with the goal of identifying the safest and most transparent strategy to use for such product claims.
Market Appeal and Challenges
Of course, products with free-from claims appeal to consumers with allergies or intolerances to those specific foods; in fact, they rely solely on ingredients labeling to choose foods safely. Specific food allergies have a prevalence of 1% or less among the U.S. population, however, so the size of the market would be rather small if these products only appealed to consumers who actually had specific food allergies or intolerances. In such situations, marketing of products to the affected and most interested consumers can be quite challenging and may involve specialized approaches, such as online sales and other forms of direct-to-consumer marketing.
Beyond the allergic consumers themselves, however, products with free-from claims can also appeal to consumers who interact with and purchase food for periodic occasions that include food-allergic individuals, such as nuclear and extended family members and organizers of school events and extracurricular activities such as team sports. As companies consider these specialized market niches, the possibility that the specific niche might have broader appeal should be examined on a case-by-case basis.
Dairy-free, milk-free, lactose-free, non-dairy claims: The universe of dairy-free foods has evolved over the decades, but the use of multiple terminologies for these claims can be confusing. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that dairy-free foods can appeal to several categories of consumers: milk-allergic individuals, lactose-intolerant individuals, vegans, and those following certain types of kosher restrictions.
Originally, many dairy-free products were simply intended for lactose-intolerant consumers. Lactose intolerance affects a very large segment of the consuming public because it is a genetically acquired condition that worsens with advancing age and affects many older children and adults, primarily in certain ethnic groups. Affected consumers experience mild intestinal discomfort (flatulence, bloating, cramping, diarrhea) after eating dairy products containing the milk sugar lactose. Lactose-intolerant consumers can often tolerate small doses of lactose in their diets without experiencing symptoms. Some dairy-free products are essentially free of lactose but still contain other milk-derived ingredients, especially milk protein fractions such as caseinates or whey protein concentrates. Some products are specifically labeled “lactose free,” which is the appropriate terminology if the product is free of lactose but contains other milk-derived ingredients.