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Welcome to the Era of 'Free-From' Food

Free-from food labels commonly found in the grocery store. Image by Linda Winick.

Grocery stores across the land are full of more and more “free-from” food and drink.

"Free From" is a catch-all term that initially identified products that excluded ingredients to which some people are allergic. Then it evolved into a way to alert shoppers that a product does not contain ingredients considered unhealthy, or at least not “healthful” to consume.

As a result, today many people buy products based on what they do not contain, rather than what they do contain.

For example,I bet most people don’t know what GMOs really are. But put the label “NON-GMO” on the package, and people assume the food is OK to eat because it doesn’t contain genetically modified organisms (sounds scary, right?).

Do we need more free-from products? That depends because this movement is already getting out of hand. I will explain how, but first it’s instructive to understand the origins.

The beginning

It all started with sugar-free beverages. In 1952, Kirsch Bottling in Brooklyn, NY launched a sugar-free ginger ale called No-Cal designed for diabetics. In 1958, Royal Crown Cola launched Diet Rite as a diet soda. Five years later, Coca Cola came out with the iconic Tab diet soda. Today, Diet Coke is the best-selling brand of carbonated soft drinks for those watching their weight.

Sugar-free was followed by fat-free, as in Jello fat-free pudding, Hidden Valley fat-free salad dressing, and so on. Fast-forward to today and we have products that are free from dozens of ingredients. In fact, free-from products are clearly not just for diabetics and dieters anymore; they are for people who are very concerned about what they put into their bodies.

I strolled through my local grocery store to find some examples of products with advisories printed on the packages:

  • Cinnamon Chex breakfast cereal from General Mills is gluten free with no high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

  • Halotop is an all-natural vegetarian-friendly ice cream free from synthetic growth hormones, artificial sweeteners, and corn syrup.

  • Annie’s Gluten Free Granola Bars are “Made with Goodness” because they do not contain artificial flavors, synthetic colors, synthetic preservatives, or high-fructose corn syrup.

  • Paleo Prime Grain-Free Protein Cookies are plant-based, non-GMO, and gluten free with no soy or dairy.

Other products are egg-free, nut-free, yeast-free, wheat-free, and so on These examples and hundreds of others surely are fine products made by well-intentioned manufacturers eager to let shoppers know they are looking out for them. Most of these free-from claims are plastered prominently on the front of packages, so they can’t be missed.

Organic: the Free-From Star

Organic food deserves a special mention. According to, “organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.”

Sales of organic food are growing, but it costs more than regular products and family budgets can be stretched only so far.

Meanwhile, people who are diabetic, lactose intolerant, allergic to nuts, or suffer from celiac disease will continue to buy free-from products. Everyone can expect to see more free-from food on grocery store shelves. That’s because most Millennials are very interested in so-called clean-label products with fewer ingredients, says recent survey by Innova Market Research. These younger consumers will be the bulk buyers of groceries once they get married and start families.

Consumer interest in avoiding artificial ingredients is not confined to the U.S. The annual Free From Functional Food Expo took place May 16-17 in Stockholm where more than 260 food makers from some 39 countries displayed their wares to more than 4,000 buyers.

Store Ops

Free-from mania is already spilling over to the grocery store’s operations.

  • Self-checkout lanes mean the store is free from some cashiers.

  • The Amazon Go test store in Seattle lets shoppers scan groceries with their smartphone, bag them along the way, and just walk out when finished. So, the store is free from checkout lanes.

  • Plastic sacks at checkout made us free from paper bags, but cloth bags make us free from plastic.

  • Apple Pay makes us free from paying for groceries with real money or credit card in hand.

  • Finally, ordering groceries from Amazon Prime and having them delivered to the home makes us free from supermarkets.

You get the idea.I don’t know how all this will end. I guess you could say that I am free from the ending.

John Karolefski writes about grocery shopping, marketing and technology at We are delighted to welcome John to our guest blogger team. This is his first entry.

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