Trends in ‘Free-from’ Labeling in Retail

Originally Published: February 1, 2017
Last Updated: February 1, 2017
Consumers are paying more attention to free-from claims on food labels, as these claims mirror consumer attitudes toward certain ingredient properties evoking clean and simple ingredient statements.

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While short, understandable ingredient lists continue to be a key strategy, free-from claims are also a fast growing way to communicate product attributes to consumers. [For larger version of chart, click on image.]

February 1, 2017–Global Food Forums, Inc.
The following is an excerpt from the “2016 Clean Label Conference Summary,” sponsored by Givaudan, RiceBran Technologies, TIC Gums, Blue Pacific Flavors, World Technology Ingredients, Inc. and IOI Loders Croklaan. 

“In a retail environment, whether it’s in-store or online, ‘free-from’ is a promise increasingly seen on labels—whether it’s gluten-free, allergen-free, dairy-free, hormone-free, or free from artificial flavors or GMOs,” said Carl Jorgensen, MSc, Director of Global Consumer Strategy-Wellness at Daymon Worldwide, in his 2016 Clean Label Conference presentation. “It’s a specific promise to the customer that targets customer attitudes toward certain food properties and ingredients.”

Based on survey results from Nutrition Business Journal and GNT Group, Jorgensen said consumers pay nearly as much attention to free-from claims as they do easy-to-understand ingredient information (67%). The top concerns are: no artificial additives (62%), free from preservatives (61%) and no artificial colorants (60%).

“Avoidance of GMOs is a trend that has been stable for some time, and consumers are changing their attitudes towards fats—looking to avoid trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils, but also looking for good fats from plant, dairy or animal sources,” he added.

“An important trend for brand managers to consider is that consumers increasingly view the absence of ‘bad’ ingredients as a baseline, or price of entry, and are making more decisions based on positive attributes—like nutrients and fair trade.”

Retailers are responding to consumer demand to eliminate so-called bad ingredients in two very different ways: Jorgensen described them as the long-list approach and the shortlist approach. The primary example of the longlist approach is Whole Foods. Their 365 brands, Everyday Value and Organic, have a free-from list currently composed of 78 items—some of them ingredients, like MSG, and others ingredient groups, like benzoates. Kroger’s Simple Truth brand has taken a similar path, with Free From 101, a detailed list of 105 ingredients (so far).

An example of the short-list approach is Trader Joe’s. Their stores “bucket” ingredients, rather than naming specifics, for the sake of simplicity and to avoid constant revisions to their list. Trader Joe’s free-from promise includes artificial flavors and preservatives, MSG, GMOs and partially hydrogenated oils/artificial trans fats.

Having GMOs on the free-from list is a rarity for brands, Jorgensen said, but one that is increasing. Hershey’s recently announced its intentions to do so, for instance. “A recent Mintel study found that GMO-free claims are important to 58% of free-from customers, with 35% ranking it as one of their top three
claims,” he added.

Aldi is another short-list example. It recently removed synthetic colors, partially hydrogenated oils and MSG from its private brand products. Jorgensen described it as a “pick your battles” approach, identifying the ingredients consumers object to the most and are likewise easy to reformulate. General Mills is taking a similar approach with artificial colors and flavors in its cereals, he added.

“Even removing a couple of ingredients helps build brand trust and loyalty.”

The advantage of the long-list approach is that it’s very specific and easily verified, but the flip-side is that it’s difficult to maintain and impossible to satisfy every customer. Meanwhile, the short list is easier to maintain and communicate, but it risks not satisfying the more engaged members of the customer base, Jorgensen concluded.

“Based on our monitoring of industry trends, more and more retailers and brands will be making free-from promises going forward; there’s no doubt about that,” Jorgensen said of the future. He likewise expects shorter free-from lists; more claims of GMO-free; and increasing instances of free-from claims reflecting ethical and environmental concerns.

The cage-free egg trend will evolve to include claims like Whole Foods’ ban on foie gras, for example. But the most obvious thing to expect in the future: Food scientists will continue to use their ingenuity to support customer demands.

“Trends in ‘Free-from’ Labeling in Retail,” Carl Jorgensen, MSc, Director of Global Consumer Strategy-Wellness at Daymon Worldwide, cjorgensen@daymon.com