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Food: marketing in search of “free”

SIAL is an indispensable event for all professionals interested in food trends (see our report on the plant-based meat mega-trend). In 2022 I was particularly surprised to see the evolution of food marketing. Inflation is no longer just in our wallets but also in words on the packaging. It’s quite simple; I had the impression that marketers had passed the word to each other to make the “free” mentions flourish: gluten-free, meat-free, fish-free, lactose-free… The list is long.

In this article, I take a little perspective on this “free” trend and bring some nuances that I hope will help.

Statistics: consumers are becoming more aware of what they eat

  • Only 38% of consumers say they are not on a diet or have no food preferences
  • 28% declare themselves flexitarians
  • 5% of consumers declare themselves Vegan
  • 5% of consumers prefer lactose-free foods
  • 4% of consumers follow a gluten-free diet
  • 2% of consumers opt for fructose-free products
  • Histamine-free foods are favored by 2% of consumers

2018-2022: the 180-degree turn in food marketing

What is paradoxical is that in 4 years, we have gone from marketing that claimed properties to marketing that claims the absence of certain ingredients. In 2018, a trend was going in this direction, that of superfoods. Normal foods were being given special properties through “super ingredients.” The product’s value was then measured by adding external molecules to make it more desirable.

marketing alimentation SIAL 2022

A collage of different photos taken during SIAL 2022. The words “free” flourish on the packaging in all languages.

Pasta with ginger and turmeric (anti-cancer) at Molino Spadoni, ketchup substitute with vitamin C at Fruta, chocolates with Inca Inchi: everything was an excuse to add a little extra to improve the health of the consumer.

In 2022, the dogma of “putting more” has been shattered. From now on, it is necessary to “put less” in an odor of sanctity. Here are some of the most common mentions we’ve seen:

  • nitrite-free
  • gluten-free
  • no palm oil
  • no palm oil from deforestation
  • GMO-free
  • no antibiotics
  • no sugars
  • lactose-free
  • no eggs
  • meat-free
  • salt-free

Food in search of purity … relative

One could think that the multiplication of “free” mentions on food packaging is a desire to return to simple products. While this shortcut may work in the minds of consumers, it is not 100% accurate.

Some ingredients are indeed bad for your health

Some of the added ingredients could do better. The nitrites in ham are only there to give it a pink color. But nitrites are also probable carcinogens, which is why they have recently come under fire. Manufacturers have no choice but to adapt.

This is also the case for Nutella spread, whose latest advertising campaign boasts the use of palm oil not resulting from deforestation. This is forgetting that palm oil also has consequences on our health, which justifies the creation of competing products. Rigoni, with its Nocciolata, has already conquered 7.2% of the market share in France (against 9.2% for Nutella, which is losing a little ground).

But what about ingredients removed purely for marketing reasons?

This is not the case with mentions with no objective other than sticking to a marketing trend. Regarding gluten, only 1% of the population is intolerant, but “gluten-free” has become a fashion.

The benefits are quite relative for some products, especially fake meat and fish. As I reminded you in this article, the elimination of animal proteins is done at the cost of an ultra-processing of food. Fake meat, fake bacon, and fake fish are products that are reconstituted in a laboratory to give them the look and taste of the original. The video below gives you an overview of the process used to make plant-based steaks.

A few final words

There is no need to procrastinate: the “simpler” a food is, the better it is for your health. In other words, the less processed it is, the lower the risks for the consumer. This search for “purity” and simplicity, coupled with the rise in power of flexitarianism (28% of consumers), probably explains the multiplication of ” free ” mentions on the packaging.

From now on, everything is suspect. Everything must be eliminated at the risk of leading to the opposite excess: the ultra-processing necessary to eliminate animal proteins. This ultra-processing is the price to pay so the consumer can keep his references. It’s a little like in the movie “The Matrix” when Cypher wants to keep the illusion of eating a steak when he knows it doesn’t exist. When will we see a product that claims to be “tasteless”?



Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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