A quick survey of the food marketplace identifies a range of foods that fill specific market niches such as dairy-free, nut-free, peanut-free, egg-free and even allergen-free. But compared to gluten-free, the number of other “free” products available in the market is smaller and less diverse.
Food products with “free” claims appeal consumers with allergies and related illnesses to specific foods. But with gluten-free, many other consumers also now select such products even though their personal need for gluten restriction is less clear. How likely is it that any of these other market niches have broader appeal?
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 and lactose-free
Dairy-free foods have been around for decades, but this term can be confusing since dairy-free foods 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 intended for lactose-intolerant consumers. Lactose intolerance affects a 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: Asians, blacks, Hispanics and some Jewish populations. 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 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 as “lactose-free,” which is an appropriate term if the product is free of lactose but contains other milk-derived ingredients.
Milk-allergic consumers must avoid ingestion of milk protein. Even very small amounts of milk protein are sufficient to provoke adverse reactions in such individuals. The symptoms are variable and can involve the skin (hives, itching, swelling), the intestinal tract (vomiting, diarrhea) and/or the respiratory tract (asthma, rhinitis). Severe anaphylactic reactions and even death can occur in some milk-allergic consumers upon inadvertent ingestion of milk proteins.
The percentage of consumers with a milk allergy is rather small. Up to 2 percent of young infants below age three have a milk allergy, but most of them outgrow that condition to the point where it’s comparatively rare in adults, at perhaps 0.2 percent of the population. Few foods in the marketplace are labeled as “milk-free.”
But the market for milk-free products has wider appeal beyond those with milk allergy or lactose intolerance. Milk-free products appeal to vegan consumers. Additionally, some Jewish consumers seek pareve foods, which are made without milk or meat. These foods should be dairy-free but are not always labeled as dairy-free.
The number of consumers with an egg allergy is actually quite small. Like milk, egg allergy mostly affects young infants and children with a prevalence of about 2 percent. Most egg-allergic children outgrow their egg allergy, so it’s not nearly so common among older children and adults.
The symptoms of egg allergy are similar to the range noted for milk, and reactions can be triggered by exposure to very small amounts of egg protein. Egg-free products also appeal to vegan consumers. While the vegan market niche is growing, any egg-free product must be formulated to contain no detectable egg protein so that it is safe for egg-allergic consumers.
Nut-free and peanut-free
The term “nut-free” on food products can be confusing, because it is unclear if this term also means peanut-free in all cases. Peanuts are legumes, which are different from tree nuts, with the exception of their form and texture.
Peanut-free is a labeling term that is much clearer. For consumers, nut-free should be construed to mean free of tree nuts but not necessarily peanuts. Peanut- and nut-free products are primarily targeted to consumers allergic to peanuts and/or tree nuts. Peanut allergy affects about 0.8 percent of U.S. consumers while tree nut allergy affects about 0.6 percent. About one-third of peanut-allergic individuals are also allergic to tree nuts, so some consumers must avoid both.
Allergic reactions to peanuts and tree nuts can be quite severe and are the leading causes of death due to food anaphylaxis. The doses needed to elicit reactions are very low in some susceptible individuals. Thus peanut-free and nut-free products should be completely devoid of protein from any of those sources. The market for these specialty free-from products is likely restricted to the allergic segment of the population.
In the U.S., “allergen-free” typically means that the product is free from all of the priority allergenic foods: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans/shellfish, soybeans and wheat. Therefore, these foods are targeted toward that segment of the consuming public with food allergies.
Overall, food allergies likely affect 4–5 percent of the U.S. population with a range of symptoms sometimes triggered by low provoking doses. Formulating allergen-free foods can be challenging, because it can be hard to find suitable replacement ingredients for some types of foods. Because of the low provoking doses, these foods must not contain any detectable protein from any of these commonly allergenic sources. Most food-allergic consumers do not need avoid all commonly allergenic foods, so the appeal of allergen-free products is likely less than 4–5 percent of the population. However, the prevalence of consumers with multiple food allergies (three to five foods) is increasing for unknown reasons, so that could create a larger market for such products.
With the exception of gluten-free, the use of “free” statements on packaged foods is voluntary and is not specifically defined or restricted, but must be truthful and not misleading. “Free” suggests that the food should contain no detectable residues. But the availability, specificity and sensitivity of detection methods to support such claims can vary.
Food products free of specific allergens can have market appeal beyond consumers with food allergies and intolerances. Market opportunities may exist, but would not be expected at the magnitude of gluten-free—unless they also become market trends generating their own inertia.