Mixing It Up
Gluten-free dominates the free-from category, especially the baking mix subcategory. Gluten-free product sales in 2015 grew nearly 10 percent to $25 billion, according to SPINS data.
"Gluten-free is growing," notes Michelle Lorge, VP of marketing for Chicago-based Simple Mills. "Just in general, I would say that we are seeing the whole allergen-free world growing. What we found was that the allergen-free world is growing not just for people with allergies. Folks are realizing some of this element of bioindividuality and the fact that they've got sensitivities. Those sensitivities can be very different depending on the person because we're all unique human beings; while they're not necessarily truly ‘diagnosed' with an issue, they know that they don't feel their best, either physically or mentally, with certain food items."
Clean and Simple
The free-from category has expanded well beyond gluten-free. "Customers are looking for clean labels completely across the board," says Joe Hanni, president of PS Seasoning & Spices, Iron Ridge, Wis.
Lorge agrees that consumers want simple, hence, the name of her company Simple Mills. They want ingredient lists with words they can pronounce and can be found in their own pantries, she notes.
"There's this whole group that is just looking for a cleaner product," agrees Kasey Moss, senior brand director for Enjoy Life Foods, Chicago. "They don't want all the fillers and the gums and all of the other ingredients that you find in a lot of mixes on those markets." Instead, they turn to the free-from category to find the clean ingredient list.
For example, Simple Mills' Banana Muffin & Bread Mix's ingredient list only contains seven ingredients: almond flour, banana, organic coconut sugar, arrowroot, organic coconut flour, baking soda and sea salt.
In terms of clean label, consumers are looking further than just the flour used. "It's beyond just gluten-free; they want non-GMO. They want all of that without giving up any type of function or flavorability," Hanni says, crediting the company's R&D department with formulating gluten-free flours that form the basis of the baking mixes and gives them all the function and flavor of traditional flour.
Search for Flavor
Consumers also are looking for more flavor than is just imparted from the flour. "We're seeing customers looking for more interesting flavors in the baking mixes, not just baking flours," Hanni says.
PS Seasoning & Spices has introduced a gourmet line of pancake mixes that includes flavors like Cookies & Cream, Fudge Brownie and Salted Caramel. "They're looking for great, unique fusion flavors. They're looking for free-from labeling and again, all of this without losing any type of functionality and/or without compromising any of the flavor as well," Hanni notes. Retailers need to be aware that consumers are looking to recreate that gourmet experience in their kitchen, he says, and they want products that will make it easy to do so.
"Consumers want to be outside the norm," he says. "One of the biggest pushes we're seeing that retailers really need to pay attention to is that [consumers] don't want a standard pancake. They want to try and make some these different baking items a fun, flavorful experience."
Enjoy Life has taken a different approach to meet consumers' growing demand for unique flavors. The company deliberately keeps its mixes' flavor profile neutral and uses digital marketing to show customers how they can customize the end product to any flavor profile they want. For example, the company's website offers a simple recipe to make a Cherry Coffee Cake Bread that uses Enjoy Life Foods Pizza Crust Baking Mix and consumers simply have to add sugar, vanilla, cherry preserves, flour and oil to create a completely unique and flavorful product.
Importance of Flour
Simple Mills also is looking for its ingredients to maximize nutrient density. "A lot of allergen-free products, especially in the baking world, are made with white rice or potato starch base devoid of all nutrients," Lorge says. The company uses almond flour because it imparts all of the nutritional benefits of almonds, which have more nutrients than other tree nuts and are a good source of fiber, high in protein and naturally cholesterol free.
Enjoy Life Foods shies away from the nut flours that many manufacturers may turn to formulate gluten-free or other free-free products because nuts are one of the top eight allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans) and has instead found teff flour to be an on-trend ingredient that works well in its baking mixes. Probiotics is another on-trend ingredient the company has incorporated to make the mixes as attractive as possible to all consumers.
"We took trends that you hear about maybe outside of baking mixes and put them into our mixes to create an all-encompassing product for multiple consumers, not just those with food allergies," notes Moss.
Simple Mills products are naturally gluten-free, which helps with the clean label aspect that consumers are looking for, due to the ingredients it chooses to use, but its products are also grain-free, soy-free, dairy-free and corn-free. "We know that a lot of our consumers have issues with these elements," Lorge says. "Not everybody has issues with all of them, but we just generally try to avoid them because we are seeing increases across the board with these ingredients."
She notes that grain-free in general is a growing trend, some of which could be due to the increasing interest in the Paleo diet. For example, Simple Mills avoids using rice flour because rice is technically a grain and people can have sensitivity to rice. Sales of grain-free foods grew 242 percent in the past year to account for $44 million in sales, she says, adding "While it still pales in comparison to gluten-free, it is definitely a growing trend we are seeing."
What's next in the free-from baking mix category? Hanni notes that plant-based diets continue to be on the rise, which will continue to push dairy out of diets as well as more consumers looking to avoid soy. Also, sales of free-from products will continue to grow as the price of the items continues to go down as manufacturers figure out how to make them more cost-efficiently.
Moss also thinks dairy may be the next big food item that consumers will look to eliminate as well as more consumers who do not suffer from food allergies seeking out the free-from products as a way to find the clean labels they want in order to eat more healthfully.
"In general, consumers are becoming a lot more aware," Moss notes. "It's an opportunity for retailers to really offer an alternative to consumers that are wanting to explore a newer, cleaner product."
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