How can companies clear up confusion over the healthiness of free-from foods?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

Long and complex ingredient lists and clean-label fatigue may be why some consumers think free-from foods are unhealthier.
Long and complex ingredient lists and clean-label fatigue may be why some consumers think free-from foods are unhealthier.

Related tags: Nutrition, Mintel

One fifth of Brits believes free-from foods are healthier than normal foods while the same number believes they are higher in fat, salt and sugar. But why is this and what should companies do?

Free-from foods, such as gluten-, soy- or dairy-free, have long been associated with health and wellness. The European Food Information Council (EUFIC), which has been tracking consumer attitudes towards free-from food since 2009​, found many consumers avoid allergens such as gluten for health reasons without necessarily being coeliac.

But data, taken from a 2015 Mintel report​, ​found that an equal number of consumers believed they were unhealthy. Why?

First of all, Mintel analyst David Jago told us the numbers needed to be broken down to be understood.

food label scrutiny unhealthy
Allergy sufferers are more likely to scrutinise food labels - and be aware of how healthy foods actually are.

“What the data does not show is the difference in attitudes between those consumers who have to avoid certain allergens and those who prefer to buy free from as part of a generally healthy lifestyle,” ​he said.

“A large proportion of respondents will be those "healthy lifestylers" who believe that gluten-free etc are better for you, often without paying attention to the fine detail on pack.

“[Meanwhile], consumers who have to avoid certain allergens will be more likely to scrutinise all the ingredient and nutritional info on-pack, so may be more aware of the nutritional profile of some free from foods.”

He added that although the data was based on a UK survey, the phenomenon could be seen in the US as well.

“A perception of artificiality’

Those who did scrutinise the ingredient lists could be left with “a perception of artificiality”​, said Jago.  This was because a large proportion of gluten-free foods, for instance, were snacks – a category which often had quite complex ingredient lists.

Another factor fuelling the idea that free-from foods were unhealthy could be industry overuse of free-from terms. Last year marketing agency Organic Monitor warned​ that the proliferation of free-from claims for products where they were unnecessary –gluten-free claims on yoghurt, for instance – risked causing ‘clean-label fatigue’, distrust and anathema.

What's the verdict - healthier or unhealthier?

A 2015 Australian study​ by the George Institute for Global Health looked at over 3,200 gluten-free products across ten food categories and found that neither consumer was right.

There was little or no difference in the nutritional value of gluten-free foods and standard varieties, concluded the researchers.

Lead author Jason Wu said: “In the core foods we found significantly lower levels of protein in gluten-free foods, but the remaining content such as sugar and sodium was actually very similar.

We found on average that gluten and gluten-free foods are just as healthy, or unhealthy as each other.”

On the other hand, certain free-from products may actually be unhealthier with higher levels of salt or fat to compensate for taste, processing or shelf-life issues, said Jago.

Free from confusion

So what should companies be doing to reassure hawk-eyed consumers who scrutinise ingredient lists that their products are healthy?

Fortifying foods could be a starting point. If 20% of consumers believe free-from products are healthier then it’s probably because they want them to be, and the Mintel report points to lactose-free milk with added calcium and gluten-free breakfast bars with added fibre as successful examples of new products launches.

Jago said: “There's a big opportunity in positioning free from foods as "better for you", if only to appeal to the increasingly aware healthy lifestylers. Clean labelling and more prominent on-pack messages could help towards that.”

But companies should be wary of exacerbating clean-label fatigue. Tina Gill, PR and marketing manager for Organic Monitor said: “The way forward for food companies is to make legitimate claims, and not just for the sake of marketing or appealing to consumers seeking 'clean products'."​ 

Related topics: Markets and Trends

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