Special edition: Free-from foods

Consumers equate ‘free-from’ with health: EUFIC

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

"We haven't managed to observe direct effects on purchasing": Hieke
"We haven't managed to observe direct effects on purchasing": Hieke

Related tags: Consumers, Coeliac disease, Wheat, Nutrition

‘Free-from’ has become synonymous with healthy food for a large number of consumers – but how that affects shopping habits remains uncertain, according to EUFIC’s Dr Sophie Hieke.

The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) is a non-profit Brussels-based organisation that aims to provide science-based food information to help consumers make educated purchasing decisions. It has been tracking consumer attitudes to free-from claims on product labels since 2009 – whether that refers to allergens, additives or genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

Hieke, consumer insights manager at EUFIC, told delegates at the recent HIE conference in Frankfurt that free-from goes far beyond ingredients that consumers avoid for medical reasons, like allergens and gluten, with a majority of consumers saying that they prefer to avoid a range of ingredients – many of which have been assessed as safe in normal diets, including a number of artificial colours, flavours and preservatives.

A broadening definition for ‘free-from’

In 2009, EUFIC identified free-from as a rising trend and 57% of consumers said they wanted to avoid artificial ingredients. In 2010, 54% said they were interested in free-from foods, and by 2011, consumers were beginning to associate ‘free-from’ with concepts like ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ as well as additive-free.

Hicke highlighted a study sponsored by ingredients firm Kampffmeyer​ released earlier this month, which found 77% of consumers said they wanted additive-free foods. However, there was still a lack of information on whether consumers’ views on free-from foods translated into purchases, she said.

“There is rising consumer demand for natural and cleanly labelled products,”​ said Hieke. “However, if we look at how consumers act, calories, fat and sugar are much more interesting to consumers…When you look at how people use on-pack labelling to make a food choice, consumers are still looking at the big three: Calories, fat and sugar.”

Gluten-free and quality

In addition, some consumers avoid gluten – the protein in wheat, rye, barley and spelt – even if they don’t suffer from coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder with gastrointestinal symptoms triggered by gluten consumption.

Hieke said that a Polish survey had shown consumers there associated highly processed food, GM food, or food with additives with lower quality, while gluten-free foods were associated with higher quality.

“Consumers generally have a positive attitude to natural, free-from and ‘no added’ but we haven’t yet managed to observe direct effects on purchasing,”​ she said.

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