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Do shoppers buy into “free-from” foods?

Two thirds of Canadians think free-from is a marketing ploy to charge more

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Four out of five Canadians eat and drink free-from foods and beverages, but new research from Mintel finds that free-from claims don’t matter all that much to them. Freshness and ingredients are “overwhelmingly” the main considerations among shoppers.

Free-from claims ranked 10th on a list of factors important to consumers, well behind where foods and beverages are grown or made, convenience/ease of preparation, and even whether the shopper has a coupon, according to Mintel.

More eye-popping, perhaps, is that nearly two-thirds (65%) feel that free-from claims are simply a way for companies to charge more for their products (21% strongly agree with the sentiment, while 46% believe free-from foods are a fad).

READ: Answers to common “free-from” food queries

Joel Gregoire, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, says Canadians are willing to buy free-from products, even though they believe free-from claims are at least partly a marketing ploy.

Gregoire says manufacturers should communicate their products’ benefits beyond merely placing a label on the package. That’s especially true for products claiming health benefits.

Mintel found equal interest among Canadians in free-from and organic claims, which suggests there is an important segment of consumers who do not differentiate between the two.

When purchasing a food or beverage boasting a free-from claim, Canadians are most likely to go for trans fats-free options (54%), followed by fat-free (48%) and preservative-free (46%). Only 22% of respondents listed gluten-free as a main food-shopping consideration.

GMO-free products are bought by just over one-third (36%). Many Canadians may be aware of non-GMO, but clearly they aren’t buying en masse.

Attitudes toward free-from products are divided among generational lines, with 55% of those 35 to 44 saying they are more likely to buy free-from products, compared with 47% of 18-to-34 year-olds and 55 and up.

READ: Non-GMO, free-from food prevalent at CHFA West

In addition, 63% of respondents 35 to 44 believe that free-from products are healthier to eat or drink, slightly ahead of people 55 and over (61%) and those 18 to 34 (56%). More than half (57%) of people 35 to 44 believe that fewer ingredients in a product means that it is healthier, compared with 43% of people 55 and up.

While the study found that close to 70% of Canadians (67%) see themselves as being well informed as to what ingredients are good (or not good) for them, Mintel suggests that views on genetically modified foods, or GMOs, are “based on perception with little grounding in fact.”

The study points out that there is no evidence to support health risks or safety concerns by GMOs, meaning that labelling could create confusion among consumers by implying that genetically modified foods might be detrimental to a person’s health.

The Canadian government has demurred from imposing mandatory GMO labels for those very reasons.

While millennials are more likely to say they have bought foods that are hormone-free, GMO-free, lactose-free, gluten-free and nut-free, boomers are more likely to consider free-from claims that have a direct health benefit. For example, boomers are more likely to have purchased salt-free foods, which have a direct correlation with heart health.

Boomers are also less likely to agree it is worth paying more for free-from products. But they are more interested in foods that are fortified with healthy ingredients.

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