‘Free-from" food products — whether they're labeled sugar-free, fat-free or gluten-free — are a trendy lifestyle choice, regardless of allergies or intolerance.
The popularity of these products, tastier and more widely available than ever, is driven by health-focused consumers, research firms say. These so-called avoiders are also swayed by the "health halo," or the perception that the product is healthier because it's lacking an ingredient or nutrient, said Andy Bellatti, a Seattle-based nutritionist and the author of the Small Bites blog.
Almost 3,000 new products with "suitable-for" or free-from claims were launched in 2010 across the United States and Western Europe, according to Leatherhead, a market research firm.
Products labeled gluten-free and dairy-free have shown the most growth. But free-from processed foods aren't necessarily better choices. A fat-free cookie, for example, is mostly refined grains and sugar and offers no nutrition, Bellatti said. On the other hand, an avocado is full of fat and is much healthier than a fat-free energy bar.
Meanwhile, "a sugar-free product can nevertheless contain troubling ingredients, such as genetically modified corn by-products, artificial dyes and artificial sweeteners," said Bellatti. "The path toward health is paved with real, whole foods, not artificially produced goods free of a particular nutrient," he said.
Here's how to make smart choices when shopping the free-from offerings:
DAIRY- OR LACTOSE-FREE
What it means: The FDA hasn't defined dairy- or lactose-free. In general, dairy-free foods should not contain cow's milk, while lactose-free products have had the lactose, or milk sugar, removed.
Common substitutions: Almond-, hemp- and coconut-based products are fueling the growth in this sector, according to the market research firm Mintel. Soy, goat and rice milk are also commonly used.
Watch out for: People with milk allergies are allergic to the milk protein, which is still present when lactose is removed. Also beware of added sugars. Even plain varieties can contain 6 grams — a teaspoon and a half of added sugar, said Bellatti, who recommends unsweetened varieties.
On the label: If it lists milk, cream, butter, evaporated or powdered milk, milk solids, margarine, cheese whey or curds, the product probably contains lactose.
31 percent: Percentage increase in sales of "free-from" products in natural markets from 2008 to 2010. Sales were $210.6 million in 2008 and $276.4 million in 2010, according to Mintel.
What it means: Unlike fat-free and sugar-free, gluten-free is essential for those who are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease, a digestive condition triggered by eating the protein gluten. Foods without certain grains — including wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, triticale and crossbred hybrids — can be considered gluten-free, according to a proposed definition by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Common substitutions: Products often use a combination of gluten-free flours, such as chickpea flour, brown rice flour, oat flour or buckwheat flour. Many gluten-free products use different gums, such as xanthan, carob bean and guar gum, Bellatti said.
Watch out for: starches. "The potato starch, cornstarch, tapioca starch and rice starch typically used in nearly all gluten-free foods are among the few foods that raise blood sugar higher than even whole wheat," said William Davis, a preventive cardiologist in Milwaukee. "This triggers insulin resistance and abdominal weight gain and can lead to heart disease, cataracts, arthritis and hypertension. Eating gluten-free (processed) foods is little better than eating jelly beans," said Davis, the author of Wheat Belly.
On the label: Look for ingredients such as "ground almonds and other ground nuts, coconut flour, ground flaxseed and occasionally other flours that do not cause blood sugar to skyrocket nor trigger any of the other phenomena," said Davis. Bellatti suggests whole grains such as brown rice, gluten-free oats and pseudograins such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and millet. Or, even better, chose whole and minimally processed naturally gluten-free foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.
What it means: The product contains less than 0.5 gram of sugar per serving, according to the FDA. But sugar-free can still be full of calories and carbohydrates, said registered dietitian Hope Warshaw, a diabetes educator. In fact, if a sugar-free food is not low or reduced in calories, the company must disclose that fact.
Common substitutions: Companies can make a sugar-free claim by using artificial sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame-potassium and sucralose — also known as Splenda) or sugar alcohols (sorbitol, maltitol). On average, sugar alcohols, found in ice creams, cookies, puddings, candies and chewing gum, provide about half of the calories of sugar and other carbohydrates.
Watch out for: Most foods that contain artificial sweeteners are highly processed and offer very little in terms of nutrition, said Bellatti. People who regularly eat/drink artificial sweeteners, he said, may not find fruit to "hit the sweet spot" because their taste buds have been trained to appreciate aspartame's sweetness as the standard. "The compounds register as hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and train our taste buds to crave flavors unrivaled by nature," said Bellatti. "Keep in mind, too, that some low-carb snack products contain sugar alcohols (like maltitol and sorbitol) that can cause gastrointestinal distress," Bellatti added.
On the label: Sugar-free foods often include genetically modified ingredients, refined grains, unhealthy and processed fats, food dyes and chemical preservatives.
What it means: The product contains no more than 0.5 gram of fat per serving, but the serving is defined by the manufacturer.
Common substitutions: Fat is usually replaced with a polysaccharide starch product such as maltodextrin, modified cornstarch or tapioca starch, which break down into sugars, said William Lassek, co-author of Why Women Need Fat. The starch is often chemically modified to make it easier to digest. To give the products the feeling of fat in the mouth, companies might use other kinds of polysaccharides such as pectin (from citrus fruits), carrageenan (from seaweed) and guar gum (from the guar bean), said Lassek.
Watch out for: Fat-free products usually have fewer calories than regular ones but as many or more carbohydrates, said Lassek, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. There's little, if any, evidence showing that switching to fat-free foods results in lower weight or better health. "People who eat fat-free foods are likely to make up for the calories they save by eating more of those or other foods, since our bodies are very good at keeping our intake of calories constant," said Lassek. And fat-free candy? It's pure sugar.
On the label: Look for healthful fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids or the monounsaturated fats in olives, walnuts, pecans, almonds and avocados. Many nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K, are fat soluble, which means they need to be eaten with fat to be absorbed. Additionally, dietary fat helps provide a feeling of fullness, said Bellatti. "That's why 150 calories of almonds (which provide protein, fiber and fat) are more filling than 150 calories of pretzels (which offer very little, if any, of those three)," he said.