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‘Free-From’ foods: Behind the Trends Impacting Agriculture

25/05/2017 – Consumer trends / Health / Gluten-free / Sugar / GMO / Butter

Increased consumer awareness is driving a shift in demand towards food options that are seen to be beneficial to health. Fran Roberts investigates some of the current consumer trends and how these are impacting on agricultural production.


The global gluten-free market is projected to reach US$6.2 billion by 2018, with North America contributing 59 per cent of the demand, and the US representing the largest, fastest-growing gluten-free market worldwide, according to research firm Markets & Markets. However, the trend for eating gluten-free – especially when medically unnecessary – is shared among many developed economies. For instance, some 20 per cent of Irish people regularly shop for gluten-free products, according to a recent report by Bord Bia (the Irish food board), despite only one per cent of the country’s population having been diagnosed with coeliac disease. “Traditionally, gluten-free offerings were only available in pharmacies or health food stores, whereas now there is proliferation right across the retail chain. The market has experienced an increase in the number of available products as well as double-digit growth in supermarkets,” comments Paula Donoghue, the food board’s Consumer Insight Manager.  


Such growth in demand for gluten-free produce has, of course, had an impact on agriculture. After peaking in 1997 at 147lbs, US per capita wheat consumption declined to 133lbs in 2015, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), who expects it to have fallen again in 2016 as a result of the rising consumption of gluten-free or multi-grain products and diet trends. As such, there is a growing interest in the development of alternative crops. 


Researchers at Hiroshima University, in conjunction with Japan’s National Agriculture & Food Research Organization (NARO), have created a recipe that uses rice-flour to produce bread with a similar consistency and volume to traditional wheat-flour loaves. Should producers see the benefits of moving to gluten-free rice flour for bread production, it could conceivably shift the focus of global grain production from the prairies and steppes of the world to the paddy fields of Asia. This would contribute to increased rice exports at a time when consumption of the staple has decreased amidst the adoption of Western dietary habits – including, ironically, the eating of more bread.


Sugar highs and lows


Gluten-free is not the only prominent dietary trend at the moment, with a move towards lowering global consumption of sugar – in part, a reaction to the rise in diabetes and obesity. The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) estimated that in 2015 seven countries had more than 10 million people with diabetes: China, India, the US, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Indonesia. The IDF also reported that in 2015 the 10 countries with the highest diabetes prevalence in the adult population were Tokelau (30 per cent), Nauru, Mauritius, Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Palau, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and New Caledonia (over 19 per cent). “Eating a healthy, balanced diet that is high in fruit, vegetables and fibre and low in saturated fat, sugar and salt, alongside being more active, will help you to maintain a healthy weight and lower your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers,” explains Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England (PHE). Indeed, it is the strain that obesity and various diseases linked to excess sugar consumption places on its healthcare system has led the UK to look at implementing a sugar levy in April 2018, in a bid to reduce its citizens’ daily intake of the sweet stuff.


With such measures now on the table, and many consumers already cutting down on sugar due to health concerns, manufacturers are beginning to respond. Almost one-third (29 per cent) of soft drinks sold in the impulse channel are either low-sugar or sugar-free products, according to the Britvic Soft Drinks Review. In comparison, only 22 per cent of the soft drinks sold in the UK’s major supermarkets are deemed to be high-sugar. However, in some developing economies, sugar remains as popular as ever: consumption in India, the world's largest consumer, is predicted to rise to a record 27.2 million in 2016-17, for example. This year is expected to mark the first time in seven years that India's production falls below consumption. Consumption is also estimated to rise in Russia, due to expansion in production of homemade alcohol, according to the USDA.


In lieu of sugar, many are turning to substitute sweeteners, to the detriment of sugar growers. In the Philippines, the Sugar Regulatory Administration earlier this year required import clearances for high fructose corn syrup – a common sweetener – after farmers complained that its unregulated entry caused sugar prices to drop. However, some in the sugar industry have embraced sweeteners as part of their business model. Israel’s sugar monopoly, Sugat, and its London-based parent company, ED & F Man – the world’s second-largest sugar company, with 12 per cent share of the market – have invested in a new sweetener, Unavoo, created by an Israeli entrepreneur.


Persistent resistance to GMO


With a swiftly expanding global population, some argue that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are the world’s most effective route to ensuring food security and affordability. The economics would certainly back this up: without GMOs the price of soybean would be around 33 per cent higher, while corn would retail at an estimated 13 per cent more. However, many consumers remain unconvinced. According to a poll by Gallup, 48 per cent of people in the US believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the GMOs now on the market are safe. In fact, they have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history – the European Commission spent more than €200 million of public funds on GMO research between 2001 and 2010. 


Nonetheless, as a result of unfavourable sentiment towards genetically modified produce, many in the food industry have begun highlighting their non-GMO status. “We’ve put it on our labels because it was something our customers wanted to know,” advises Hitesh Hajarnavis, CEO of Popcorn Indiana. In a Nielsen study of 30,000 consumers across 60 countries, 80 per cent of respondents said they would pay more for foods with labels like ‘non-GMO’, with respondents based in Latin America the most willing to pay more. This demand for non-GMO food has led to businesses adding non-GMO labels to food even where no GMO version exists. For example, Tropicana Orange Juice includes the ‘Non-GMO Project’ seal on its package, yet its sole ingredient is oranges, and there are no commercially grown, genetically engineered oranges. Similar labelling can be seen on other products for which no genetically engineered ingredients exist.


Natural selection


The growing emphasis on healthy eating has also seen a perhaps surprising resurgence for one product – butter. Demand for natural ingredients is a factor; another is that many health authorities have reversed their advice regarding butter and margarine, with the trans-fats found in margarine now considered a health risk. “Butter is re-emerging because it gives a stellar performance as a familiar ingredient that facilitates clean and simple ingredient labels,” says David Sprinkle, Research Director at Packaged Facts. A recent report by the market research company noted that consumers – particularly younger generations – seek to avoid overly processed foods and ingredients. In response, some household names have already made the move to butter – McDonald's, for one, has switched from margarine to butter across its breakfast menu as part of a push to improve consumers’ perception of its food. “Butter has a more natural image. I think people have always been a bit suspicious about margarine,” said Bonnie Liebman, Director of Nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.


This desire for natural foods and beverages has, in tandem with the low-sugar trend, actually sparked something of a backlash against the artificial sweeteners used to make sugar-free products, as health concerns around synthetic substitutes continue to surface. “A lot of people assume they must be healthy choices because they are not sugared beverages, but the critical thing for people to understand is we don't have the evidence,” notes Professor Susan Swithers from Purdue University. Evidence from Boston's University School of Medicine concurs, with researchers noting that: “Drinking at least one artificially sweetened beverage daily was associated with almost three times the risk of developing stroke or dementia, compared to those who drank artificially sweetened beverages less than once a week.” For those that like sweetness but with less health risks, natural sweeteners such as honey remain a popular choice.


Ultimately, the primary driver of all of the aforementioned trends is health. Only time will tell if such trends are set to reverse again as authorities update their advice.

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