Food producers, grocers jumping on 'free from' bandwagon

Expect to see a lot more Canadian-made healthy products on your grocery store shelves in 2018. It was the biggest food trend of 2017, as demand grew for products free from ingredients such as gluten, sugar, dairy, additives and more. Canadian entrepreneurs and grocers are eager to satisfy the new craving.

Specialized food is a growing, multi-billion industry, with entrepreneurs eager to get in on it

Erin Magilton has cut sugar, wheat and dairy from her diet, in order to feel healthier. (CBC)

Expect to see a lot more Canadian-made healthy products on your grocery store shelves in 2018.

Local entrepreneurs from coast to coast are working to cash in on the latest food craze: products that are "free from" various ingredients.

"How many people do you know that don't eat carbs, don't eat dairy, don't eat this, don't eat that?" asks consultant Dana McCauley, who works with Food Starter, a Toronto facility that helps small companies get established.

"It's a real diet trend to have an exclusion of a food group or a type of food."

Dairy-free milk, made with almonds

The trend was front and centre at the official opening of Food Starter, where the current crop of entrepreneurs were on hand to dish up their wares to visitors. On offer:

  • Organic ice tea that's free from caffeine.
  • Popsicles that are free from added sugar.
  • Peanut butter that's free from dairy.
  • Chips for salsa that are free from gluten.
  • Even "milk" that's free from dairy — it's made with almonds.

One vendor rhymed off an almost comically long list of what her vegan burgers are free from, including trans fat, cholesterol, wheat, soy, eggs, and dairy. Are they also free from flavour?

"They're delicious," she insisted, "full of gorgeous dark green vegetables." 

Closeup of a display for the Bald Baker brand, which specializes in sugar conscious desserts. (CBC)

The "free from" movement, as it's known, is being called the biggest food trend of 2017. One market research firm forecasts the category will be worth $28.8 billion US ($37.1 billion Cdn) globally by 2023.

"It was very popular in the U.K. six or seven years ago. And then here in Canada it took a bit of time to bubble up," explains McCauley.

Improved energy, 'mental clarity'

Although some consumers choose to avoid certain foods due to allergies or other medical conditions, a growing number are opting to exclude specific foods simply because they believe it will improve their health.

Erin Magilton and her husband Mike Morneau of Oakville, Ont., recently decided to cut wheat, dairy and sugar from their diet. And it's not because they have allergies, food sensitivities, or are trying to lose weight. Their goal? To feel better.

Vegan burgers on display at the Food Starter event. The main ingredient is dark green vegetables. (CBC)

"It's really around that level of energy, that level of mental clarity we have when we eat clean," Magilton explains, while shopping at the Whole Foods Market near her home. "It sounds a bit esoteric, but it's about that feeling of lightness you get."

It wasn't long ago that so-called health food fanatics had to visit specialty food stores to find the type of products they wanted. Nowadays, regular grocery stores are jumping on board the trend — some have an entire aisle devoted to natural products.

Ketchup and gummy bears

At Sobeys corporate office in Mississauga, Ont., Nitin Khosla manages the company's natural food category, a category that's been around for at least 10 years.

"What's new is what's coming from our supplier partners," he says. "They're evolving the category from what it was 10 years ago. Our suppliers are innovating a lot more products."

Khosla attends trade shows and industry events regularly, on the hunt for free-from products he thinks will sell. "I'm looking for new products all the time. This category is growing, it's emerging," he says.

Entrepreneur Richa Gupta, left, meets with executives from Sobeys to talk about the launch of her Good Food for Good brand of ketchup in their stores. (CBC)

He recently discovered a ketchup that's free from refined sugar. The startup behind the brand is Good Food for Good — company founder Richa Gupta says her ketchup is sweetened with dates, which she says makes it healthier.

"A tablespoon of regular ketchup has the same amount of sugar as three gummy bears," she says. "When I did that math, I said to myself this is astounding."

What's in packaged, prepared foods

Good Food for Good ketchup contains one gram of sugar per tablespoon — the leading brand in Canada contains four grams per tablespoon.

Gupta has an eight-year-old daughter, but it wasn't her own child that inspired her innovation. "I have a line of cooking sauces that are fresh and organic and sweetened with dates, and one of my regular customers came to me and asked me to do something with ketchup, because her daughter ate everything with ketchup."

In addition to the large order from Sobeys, she also expects an order from Loblaw in the new year. The trend has become mainstream.

Food consultant Dana McCauley works with Food Starter, a Toronto incubator program that helps small food companies grow. (CBC)

Dana McCauley at Food Starter attributes the surging popularity of "free from" foods, in part, to a growing concern on the part of consumers about the number of packaged, processed or even pre-made meals they buy for weeknight dinners.

Market research firm NPD says 75 per cent of meals prepared in Canadian households are made in 15 minutes or less. McCauley says these days, a lot of people only cook homemade meals from scratch on weekends, when there's time.

"Consumers are starting to say, 'if I'm eating all this packaged stuff, what's it doing to my body and my children's bodies?'"

Ambitious and creative entrepreneurs are eager to satisfy this new and growing craving.

Food that's 'free from'

6 years ago
Duration 3:56
Featured VideoDianne Buckner reports on food companies, grocers jumping on the 'free from' bandwagon


Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.