What Is the “Free From” Food Movement?

The “free from” food movement has become a dominating force in the ever-evolving food landscape, and is expected to maintain its influence for years to come.

Our “Free From” Definition

A consumer-driven movement utilizing packaged-food marketing claims to expedite transparency regarding what ingredient(s) are not present in said goods. e.g. Free From Nitrates, Free From Artificial Flavors

A Little Background on “Free From” Claims

In its infancy, “free from” was a reaction to the needs of a growing population suffering from severe food allergies. The Food Allergen and Labeling Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) was the necessary next step to ensure consumer safety.

Labeling needed to be clear and accurate, and the FDA compiled their heavy hitter list of allergens. Manufacturers now had specific regulations to guide their steps as they modified their production practices. At this point, “free from” was grounded in science, regulated and provided the consumer with the knowledge required to make safe food choices.  

Click here to learn more about major changes to the FDA Nutrition Facts Panel.


the “Free From” Movement HAS Evolved

The FALCPA illustrated the power of the consumer voice, and this power has only continued to grow. The FDA may have identified its top allergen concerns, but consumers have proved their list is ever growing. From the top 8 we’ve moved on to gluten -free, additive-free, and artificial-free, just to name a few. In a recent survey, Mintel, identified the nation’s leading “free from” claims: 

  • Trans Fat-Free, 78%
  • Preservative-Free, 71%
  • G.M.O.-Free, 58 %
  • Sodium-Free, 57%


Most American consumers who buy ‘free-from’ foods are doing so because they’re looking for less processed, more natural foods.


Mintel also cited that between 2011 and 2014 there was a 17% increase in products brought to market that featured a low/no/reduced allergen claim. These numbers will only continue to grow as new additions are added to the expanding list of ingredients consumers are refusing to accept.

Free From Food Movement

Clinical Health vs. Perceived Health

As the “free from” movement has gained momentum, the tangible foundation in science has become less important. Consumers have begun to link “free from” with healthy lifestyles. Anything modified, processed, or difficult to pronounce has been deemed harmful, even though these beliefs have not been substantiated by credible research. 

Hitesh Hajarnavis, CEO of Popcorn Indiana, was quoted in a NY Times article stating: Look, the thing here, in my opinion, is that there is a small number of people who have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant. But there is a growing population of people who have somehow heard that gluten-free is healthier or think of it as fashionable, and when they remove gluten from their diet, they’re inadvertently taking out a lot of processed foods and are really feeling the benefits of eating healthier foods.

The desire to feel good about what we eat holds more weight when walking the aisles of the local grocery store. Because of these changing priorities, federal regulation doesn’t really exist for most newcomers to the “free from” list. The FDA is no longer setting the standards for definitions, consumers are.  


The FDA is no longer setting the standards for definitions, consumers are.  

The New “Free From” Constituency: Millennials

In understanding the modern “free from”, it is crucial to properly identify its core consumer base – drivers and targets. Individuals with serious dietary restrictions are no longer the movement’s primary proponents, millennials are.

PEW Research Millennial PopulationMillennial purchasing decisions are based on health and well-being, ethical manufacturing practices and a deep desire for transparency.  At 74.5 million people, Millennials have edged out Baby Boomers as the “largest living generation in the nation” – Richard Fry, FactTank.

Comprised of people age 18-35, millennials won’t be aging out of the market any time soon, and most if not all major manufacturers have addressed their very large demand for “free from” products. When companies like Campbell’s begin to identify GMO ingredients on their labels, and Kraft removes artificial colors from their hallowed blue box Mac & Cheese, it is clear this is not a trend fading into the background.


What’s Next For “Free From” Food?

Allocating resources to further a company’s “free from” portfolio isn’t a calculated risk, it’s a savvy investment. People now expect to see incredible amounts of linear feet dedicated to such products in every grocery store they enter.

Healthfulness once measured by nutrients present in what we ate, has been supplanted by a new yardstick-  how many things can our food claim not to have. It’s a brave new “free from” world, and no one wants to be left behind.