Use and misuse of the expression ‘free from’

Author: Marco Negro

It may be with a view to respect and safeguard the planet or well-being and health. It may be a religious, ethical, moral choice. Sometimes it is a trend, a simple passing fashion, or a real idiosyncrasy.

The fact is that proposals for ‘free from’ food and wine – as well as sustainable, organic, vegetarian, vegan ones – have been multiplying for several years now.

Free from

Consumer awareness and attention is becoming increasingly refined on these issues, so much so that conferences and fairs entirely dedicated to these new product categories have sprung up. This year’s ‘Free From Functional Food Expo’ is scheduled to take place in Barcelona in June, one in Sao Paulo in July, one in Bangkok in September, and one in Amsterdam in November. A stop in Dubai next year is also planned. In England, theFree From Food Awardstake place: to be eligible for the competition, foods must be free from at least one of the main allergens (celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupins, milk, shellfish, mustard, peanuts, sesame, soya beans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites, and nuts).

Here they are lined up then. The army of ‘free from’ foods and wines. They are coming out of the small spaces where until recently they had been relegated and gradually aligning themselves with the rest of the assortment on the shelves of shops, supermarkets, in online sales channels.

Vineyard and olive groves and the town of Montalcino in the background

This growing offer can be confusing, especially in the absence of a legal definition. The food industry and consumers perhaps need to identify more clearly what ‘free from’ food is. Words are important. What about the assurances ‘100% vegan’? Does it mean dairy-free and egg-free, as well as entirely plant-based? What is the difference between ‘vegan’ and ‘100% vegan’ in a food? And ‘allergen-free’? Are foods that flaunt this classification completely free of them?

Sustainable and organic

A recent Nomisma research shows that 7 out of 10 people in Italy in 2021 bought food or drink products made by brands that are active on the topic of environmental sustainability. 28% of consumers are looking for shops with a wide assortment of sustainable products and 25% prefer to buy in outlets that offer many products with environmentally friendly packaging. Nine out of 10 Italians are aware of the seriousness of our planet’s environmental situation and for 32% of households, sustainability is the main element of choice in food purchases. This concern for the planet’s situation and the certainty that something must be done to reverse the course (7 out of 10 Italians declare that everyone can do a lot to improve things) are not yet matched by regular sustainable purchasing behaviour: the share of consumers who adopt it systematically stands at 52%.  This can be traced – at least in part – to a still limited ‘willingness to pay’. In fact, 54% of Italians say they are not willing to pay a price differential for a more environmentally friendly product. The need to correctly communicate the value of the product and its sustainability attributes when this implies a higher price is therefore becoming stronger. Especially when one in three Italians complain that they do not have enough information to assess the sustainability of what they buy and 58% would still like to know more.

More and more Italians are choosing organic: 23 million families consume food products declared as organic (+10 million compared to 2012; source: Nomisma for Osservatorio SANA 2021). Purchases of these products continue to grow, both on the domestic market (4.5 billion euros, +234% compared to 2008) and in international markets: 2.9 billion euros is the value of Italian organic exports on foreign markets (+671% compared to 2008). Online sales grew +214% during the lockdown period (compared to the same period in 2019), certainly driven by the restrictions imposed and the search for greater security during the worst periods of the pandemic, but saw a consolidation in household purchasing styles despite the progressive re-openings. Between May and August 2020 organic food sales continued to run (+182%, compared to the same period in 2019) until the confirmation recorded in 2021 (+67%).

From the world of wine

After years of siding with and fundamentalising the Italian wine market, an attempt at settlement is coming from Slow Food, which is extending its traditional mantra of ‘good, clean and fair’ to the wine world and proposing a manifesto. Good, clean and fair wine can help change the agricultural system, combining environmental sustainability, landscape protection and the cultural and social growth of the inhabitants of the lands where vines are grown. ‘A starting point,’ say Slow Food, ‘around which to compare and discuss. Thanks to this charter to be inspired by, we want to bring together all the players in the supply chain around the awareness that the role of wine can no longer be just the hedonistic one linked to the pleasure of tasting, but will increasingly follow the path of authentic environmental sustainability, landscape protection and the cultural and social growth of the wine-growing areas’.

Artichoke on a table

A glimpse of the world

Scandinavian countries – The topic of third-party certified sustainability has entered the selection criteria of the Scandinavian monopolies and that of the Canadian province of Quebec. While consumers in Northern Europe prefer a third-party body to certify the producers’ self-declarations, the European system is still in the previous phase, in the jungle of self-declarations shouted on packaging and in advertising passages.

UK – The British market is very sensitive to the topic of ‘vegan’ and ‘free from’. The average, low-spending consumer follows the topic trends (no gluten, vegan, no sulphites) a lot, but without critical thinking and demanding the same modest prices as the industrial product. Browsing on the portal of Ocado, the world’s largest online grocery, we find consumer prices for Organic Prosecco lower than those of non-organic quality Prosecco; the same thing we find for some jams, ‘pesto-like’ sauces or even dried berry fruit. It is easy to come across a ‘V’ on a green field, indicating that the product is suitable for consumption by the vast and growing group of ‘vegetarian-vegans’. Sometimes, however, it is a redundant and unnecessary indication, especially if placed on a fruit juice or coffee bean, which would have nothing of animal origin.

United States – In the US, the use – sometimes abuse – of the term ‘superfood’ is unstoppable.  It all started in the rich Californian market, which has always been an incubator of new trends, with berries and seeds (from goji to chia, from blueberries to green tea and spirulina algae) characterised by possible positive health effects. However, health-improving effects require considerable daily amounts of these elements. Hence the idea of adding berries, flowers, seeds and whatnot to food preparations. Today, alongside the wave of super-healthy (and super-expensive) foods, there remains for the average consumer a disproportionate availability of preparations ‘fortified’ with some super component. These are actually more ‘flavoured‘ than real superfoods, but the label’s reminder of the added element is powerful. Emblematic is the case of smoothies, milk and dairy products, snacks, soft drinks and even wine-based preparations sold on wine shelves.

Russia – Consumers in the Russian market are showing a new sensitivity to organic products in recent years, while they are not yet sensitive to the appeal of food and wine products declaring the attention paid to sustainability solutions in the supply chain.

The appellation ‘organic’ becomes interesting especially for imported wines, but also for dairy products and cheeses made by the newly-born local artisanal dairy industry. These are small dairies that produce cheese using the dairy techniques learnt from French and Italian cheesemakers, or medium-sized industries that process milk into the many dairy products on the Russian consumer’s table: smetana, sour cream, kefir and tvorog. On the latter, indications from local bodies certifying the absence of chemicals in the animal feed chain are beginning to be appreciated.

A field of green-manure

Japan – In Japanese culture, the quest for harmony with nature, from aesthetics to nutrition. is deeply rooted: this is why Japan, among Asian countries, is the one that is most sensitive to green and sustainability issues: proof of this is the strong adhesion to the values of the ‘natural wines’ movement. Importers and distributors value certifications of this nature, making them an important commercial argument, which allows higher remuneration and margins.

Our food choices involve the issues of caring for our health and safeguarding the planet. At the same time, new trends and new communication contents are born and developed.

10th November 2022,

Marco Negro

Picture of Marco Negro
Marco Negro
Expert of communication of Italian wine. He has a knack for connecting people.
Picture of Marco Negro
Marco Negro
Expert of communication of Italian wine. He has a knack for connecting people.

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