The ever-changing label landscape

Foods labelled free-from or plant-based are increasingly in the spotlight, while the term “natural” remains a bit vague

It was at least 25 years ago in this column
that I questioned the use of the word “natural” in product descriptions. Back then it was a broad, vague term and it remains so today.

Natural, as used by the food industry, broadly has meant any product not containing artificial colours or preservatives or ingredients. But without any clear definition of the word or rules around its use as a claim on food and other consumer goods packages, there is some confusion. Use of the term natural on food packages has sparked debates and even lawsuits from consumer groups who want the term clearly defined or banned altogether. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is currently looking into whether or not it will step in and define what natural actually means.

Consumers’ growing appetite for less-processed foods has prompted the industry to come up with other appealing descriptors. In recent years, the terms “clean” and “free-from” have been gaining steam. In terms of the latter, Euromonitor International research shows global growth of “free-from” foods climbed 7% in 2016 reaching US$32 billion and is expected to grow by another US$9.5 billion by 2021. Defined as products that have been designed to exclude specific ingredients, free-from products initially appealed to those consumers with allergies or intolerances to things like nuts, milk and gluten.

Supermarkets like Kroger in the U.S. and Morrison’s in the U.K. were quick to catch onto the trend, and now offer dedicated free-from sections in their stores. Kroger also publishes a list on its website of more than 100 artificial ingredients, flavours and preservatives “you won’t find in our products” while supermarket chain Morrison’s aired a television ad last Christmas touting its wide free-from range of gluten-, wheat- and milk-free products.

Today, free-from has become a world-wide movement, with Euromonitor reporting that “the trend has gone beyond intolerances.” A wider group of consumers (not just those with specific nutritional needs) are seeking out free-from foods, perceiving them as healthier than regular products. Consumers are also seeking out free-from foods out of concern for the environment and animal welfare. Non-GMO foods are also linked to the free-from movement.

Now, plant-based foods have stepped into the spotlight. One manifestation of this is the growing popularity of meat-free January or “Veganuary.” Launched in the U.K. five years ago, Veganuary is an organization (a registered charity, actually) that encourages consumers to try going vegan for the first month of the year to help animal welfare, the planet and their own personal health. This year a record number of people (about 250,000 in more than 190 countries) signed up for the challenge, according to The Guardian. Meanwhile, plant-based eating with its emphasis on vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, has been identified by many industry observers as something that will continue to trend in 2019 and beyond.

Even the recently released, revamped Canada’s Food Guide puts a huge emphasis on Canadians increasing their consumption of plant-based protein. It seems the plant-based trend is here to stay.

Still, I have to wonder: what trends will be grabbing the spotlight next?

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s February 2019 issue.