‘Free-From’ Food Market
Shoppers are sending “free-from” food skyrocketing and the trend seems set to continue. When a product of a company mentions “Free from…” consumers believe it is free from allergen, or contains zero parts per million. Increased public awareness of food allergies and intolerance has brought about a 300 percent growth in the “free from” sector since 2000. Free-from diets are becoming a lifestyle choice, irrespective of whether one is actually suffering from allergy or food intolerance. A number of celebrity endorsements are said to have fuelled further growth.
 Further Growth Predicted
There has been a tremendous increase in the amount of information on product labels over the last 5 years. Consumers are not satisfied with only information on ingredients, nutrition and best-before dates, but are demanding to know whether packaging can be recycled, where the product comes from and whether it was produced ethically. Allergen and free-from labeling in particular have grown significantly.
While dieticians are of the opinion that the consumers are being duped, a Mintel consumer study predicted continued growth for this segment as more and more people with ‘perceived’ food allergies are pushing up the demand for free-from products.
 Sufficient Regulations Lacking
Lack of sufficient regulations have made the scientific community question the validity of such claims which may be putting the lives of people at risk. Companies only need to set up their own appropriate risk assessment and allergen control systems to substantiate their claims.
Across the industry it is accepted that “free from” need not necessarily mean 100 percent free from allergen or additive. But an agreement is needed, and regulations developed around it, to arrive at an acceptable level that causes no harm to anyone.
 Claims Disproved
Technological advances in allergen detection today have been able to disprove free-from claims and raised questions about the validity of such a strong guarantee. Certain tests have discovered many traces of allergen. Traces often found in such tests may not be enough to cause harm, but enough to question the legitimacy of the “free-from” claim.”
Most Americans believe they have food allergy, though various government and medical association statistics put the figure at between one in 25 and one in 70 (a range of 1.4% to 4% of the adult population). According to Allergy UK, only 2 percent of the population suffers from food allergies which can be life threatening, while a larger number is affected by food intolerance.
 Lactose and Gluten Most Common Culprits
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates put lactose (found in milk-based products) and gluten (found in wheat-based products) as the two most common culprits for food intolerance and said that 28% of Americans suffer from some form of this condition. The principle sources of gluten in the diet include wheat, rye, and barley. Oats may be tolerated in small amounts by some patients with celiac sprue, although those with severe cases typically do not.
 Food intolerance effects
The effects of food intolerance can vary between minor inconvenience and life-threatening conditions.
Celiac disease, which is a form of food intolerance, is among the extreme forms of intolerance that makes it impossible to digest gluten. The University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore has, however, estimated that one in 133 individuals (0.8% of the population) suffer from it. Foods such as soybean flour, tapioca flour, rice, corn, buckwheat and potatoes are usually safe for people with celiac disease.
In the UK lactose-free products comprises the largest chunk (48 percent) of the free-from market. Nut-free or egg-free markets have grown to take 43 percent share. Wheat-free breads and cakes have grown by almost 120 per cent over the last three years.
 How to Follow a Gluten-Free Diet
It is always advisable to consult a dietician or nutritionist to work out a gluten-free diet. But as a general rule do not buy prepared foods that contain the following:
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Flour or cereal products
- Vegetable protein
- Malt and malt flavorings
- Starches (unless specified as corn starch, which does not contain gluten)
- Various flavorings, which can be derived from cereals containing gluten
- Vegetable gum
- Emulsifiers, stabilizers derived from cereals containing gluten
When eating at a restaurant, avoid the following:
- Breaded foods
- Creamed foods
- Meatloaf and gravies
The following are good choices for a gluten-free diet:
- Broiled or roasted meats (beef, poultry, fish)
- Plain vegetables
- Plain salads
- Potatoes (white, sweet, yams)
- Breads and baked goods made from alternative flours (rice, soy, tapioca, arrowroot, potato)
- Breakfast cereals containing only rice, corn, grits or hominy (Such as puffed rice). Some people with celiac disease may tolerate oats as well.
 How to Follow a Lactose-Free Diet
Avoid products which mention milk products in their label. Also avoid
- Milk solids
- Foods like margarine
- Non-dairy creamer
- Baked goods and salad dressings may contain lactose
- Candy bars. Many candy bars also have added lactose
- Casein, caseinates, and whey may contain lactose, but usually not enough to cause problems.
 Allergens Due to Cross-Contamination
Allergens can also appear in products due to cross contamination in the factory. The US Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), in a survey report stated that some manufacturers are not doing enough to prevent cross-contamination of their products by allergens.
The US food regulator singled out milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans as ingredients which must be listed by producers on the label. It also urged producers to use a variety of labeling statements to suggest that the product may contain allergens due to cross contamination in the factory.
 Preventive Measures
Some preventive measures recommended to the industry include use of dedicated equipment for products containing allergens, and thorough cleaning of equipment when switching between processing products that contain allergens and those that do not.
Allergen contamination can force manufacturers to make costly recalls if their products contain allergens that are not listed on the label. In the European Union, it is mandatory for manufacturers to list 12 potentially allergic ingredients. The allergens include cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, eggs, peanuts, soy, milk and dairy products, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites
Clear information about ingredients is also required to be on labels of items made from these foods, for example a glaze made from egg. But claiming allergen free is believed to be misleading trusting consumers in the absence of any legislation determining the thresholds for companies claiming 'free from' for their products. Alternative Measures
CODEX, which develops food standards and guidelines for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and WHO, is working out an accepted threshold for gluten in 'gluten free' products. It is recommended that a limit of 20 parts per million (ppm) pose no risk to allergy sufferers.
Early this year a roundtable discussion on allergen legislation was held in Italy to explore the possibility of using 'may contain' warnings on food labels.
Kinnerton Confectionery company in the UK has developed stringent procedures to ensure its products are free from nuts. Though there have been no reports of nuts being found in their product, the company labels mention 'Kinnerton nut safety promise' instead of 'free from nuts'
Though unconditional guarantee is not expected, people should be presented with accurate facts so that those who want to avoid even miniscule traces of allergen can have the choice left to themselves.
- Free from claims misleading, says charity
- Food allergens still pose a threat in US foods
- Food Allergies and Intolerance - US - hard copy
- Lactose-controlled Diet
- Allergen-free: time for clarity