January, 2023

Allergens in plant-based foods?

The free-from-allergen trend in plant-based innovations

Growing awareness around food allergies, well-being, and the impact that food has on the health of our bodies are just some of the factors driving the growth of different markets: from health, plant-based, and vegan to free-from and allergen-free. Let’s find out how the trend related to the development of allergen-free products is gradually affecting the plant-based segment as well.

Let’s take a step back: allergen-free market size and figures

Food allergies have been rapidly increasing in recent years: according to the BBC article, the rate of food allergies worldwide grew up from about 3% of the world’s population in 1960 to about 7% in 2018. Although this is still a minority of consumers – by comparison, vegan consumers make up 6% of the population – many companies are moving toward the development of allergen-free foods as an opportunity to expand their client-base. This is because the use of ingredients appropriate for people with food allergies does not only appeal to allergic consumers, but also to their families and the institutions/organizations that provide services such as canteens or catering.

To define food ingestion-related disorders, the , l’American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology has proposed a widely accepted classification using the generic term “adverse reaction to food,” then distinguishing between allergies and intolerances: allergies are mediated by immunological mechanisms. In intolerances, on the other hand, the reaction is not triggered by the immune system.

Demand for allergen-free foods is expected to increase as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, as consumers’ attention to health and immune-strengthening issues increases. According to the article published by Bloomerg, the size of the global allergen-free food market is expected to reach $75.67 billion by the end of 2030, and the market is set to experience a strong positive growth trajectory with a CAGR of 9.0% between 2020 and 2030.

The allergen-free trend in plant-based foods

The growing demand for clean-label food products, for alternatives to meat and dairy food, is expected to be a key factor in the development of the allergen-free market. At the same time, however, the plant-based segment will also be able to seize the opportunity provided by the growth of this market to make products that are more inclusive to all types of consumers.

The problem of allergens is highly present in plant-based products: the most commonly used ingredients include soy and wheat derivatives, as well as nuts and peanuts. However, there has already been a “protein shift” for several years from the use of first-generation plant-based proteins (soy, wheat, rice, whey protein…) to new plant-based proteins. A classic case is the transition-particularly in the area of meat alternatives-from the predominant use of soy or wheat protein to pea protein. The last one, in fact, has basically wiped out part of the market occupied by the other proteins, since it is an ingredient with the same functionality, but a much lower level of allergenicity. According to Mintel GNPD, the use of pea protein over the past decade has steadily increased: from 2015, when it covered 10% of vegetable-based meat alternative product launches, to 2021, where it covered 28% of product launches, a figure equal to ingredients such as soy and wheat, which have since lost ground. In addition to pea, more and more start-ups are experimenting with developing alternatives to meat from non-allergen sources, such as legume blends, mung bean, jackfruit, mushrooms, and, although still in the early stages, algae.

Similarly, in the plant-based beverage segment, we can also spot new launches of allergen-free products, made from pea, oats, and coconut, which is still a major consumer favorite. In plant-based dairy products, we are also seeing a shift to allergen-free products, as products currently on the market are predominantly based on flavored fruits, such as cashews and almonds. Several start-ups are looking at new alternatives, using ingredients such as sunflower seeds, fava beans, or even cauliflower to develop a new type of plant-based cheese.