Demystifying “free from” claims for the UK

What you need to know

Regulatory issues are among the most complex topics within the food and beverage industry. Whether you want to launch a new product or ingredient, import or export foods, or just expand to a new market, you have to follow the law of the land linked to food. Over the next few weeks, regulatory and compliance experts will be taking us through some interesting topics.

  • Sam Conebar deciphers “free from” claims and highlights what aspects need to be kept in mind while making these claims in the UK. 

  • Tomás Guerrero, Director of the Halal Trade & Marketing Centre, talks about the growth of Halal certification as well as the opportunities, challenges, and process for this certification.

  • Mathilde Do Chi highlights some of the regulatory challenges arising from the creation of new food categories in Europe and how to address these.

So, let’s dive straight into the world of “free from” claims with GourmetPro expert Sam Conebar, founder and managing director of Check My Label.

Allergies appear to be getting worse – and more prevalent. While there aren’t exact figures, it is estimated that 30-40% of people around the world now have some form of allergy. 

In the UK, children diagnosed with allergic rhinitis and eczema have tripled over the last 30 years, according to Allergy UK. The prevalence of cow milk allergy among children in the developed world is around 2-3%, making it the most common food allergy among kids. 

Food allergies can be a major health risk and also impact quality of life. In a 2023 survey by Allergy UK, 66% of respondents said that their food allergy had impacted their mental health and 59% had had challenges accessing proper care or diagnosis for their food allergies.

In light of these issues, it isn’t surprising that “free from” foods have become a category unto themselves for consumers living with allergies. “Free from” is an umbrella term for foods that exclude certain ingredients so that they are suitable for those with allergies or intolerances towards those ingredients, like dairy, eggs, gluten, nuts, seeds, seafood, soy, and so on. In the UK, there are 14 ingredients by law that need to be identified as allergens. 

Over the last few years, free-from foods have also become popular among those without any allergies, as these consumers perceive avoiding some of these ingredients as being better for health. So popular are free-from claims that such products have moved from niche stores to mainstream aisles. According to a Grocer-Kantar WorldPanel study, the annual UK market for free from foods was worth GBP3.4 billion as of April 2023.

And therein lies the rub.

The Dangers of “Free From” Claims

With an increase in demand for simpler, cleaner and less-processed foods, a growing number of UK products carry free-from claims, including “sugar free”, “milk free” and “gluten free”.

For those who suffer with allergies or intolerances, free-from claims can provide information as to whether or not a food is safe to consume. The vast majority of shoppers, however, now equate ‘free from’ claims to mean that a product is “healthy”, which is not always the case.

We look at the dangers of making free-from claims, and why they should be used with caution.

Nutrition Claims

Some free-from claims, such as “sugar free” and “fat free”, fall under the scope of Regulation (EC) 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims.

This regulation sets out a clear legal framework for brands wanting to make nutrition claims on their products. As a result, the following claims can be made on food products as long as certain nutritional requirements are met:

  • Sugar Free: This claim may only be made where the product contains no more than 0.5g of sugar per 100g or 100ml.

  • Fat Free: This claim may only be made where the product contains no more than 0.5g of fat per 100g or 100ml.

  • Saturated Fat Free: This claim may only be made where the sum of saturated fat and trans-fatty acids does not exceed 0.1g per 100g or 100ml.

  • Salt Free: This claim may be made where the product contains no more than 0.0125g of salt per 100g or 100ml.

  • Calorie Free:  This claim may be made where the product contains no more than 4kcal (17kJ) per 100g or 100ml.

“Gluten Free” Claims

Many consumers would likely be surprised to learn that “gluten free” is the only free-from allergen claim that is covered by specific legislation.

Regulation (EU) No 828/2014 on the labeling of gluten free foods provides specific guidance that must be followed by any brands wishing to make a “gluten free” claim on their products.

The regulation states that a “gluten free” claim can only be made on products that have been tested for the presence of gluten and displayed a result below 20ppm (20mg/kg).

It is not sufficient for a product to claim “gluten free” simply on the basis that none of the ingredients contain gluten, nor is it permitted for untested products to claim that it contains “no gluten-containing ingredients”.

If you missed our recent webinar on trends for 2024 & beyond…

“Free From” Allergen Claims

With the exception of “gluten free” claims, all other free-from claims are regulated in accordance with the provisions of general food law (Regulation (EC) No 178/2002, Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011), which aims to make sure that products are safe for consumption and product labels are truthful and not misleading.

Brands should be aware that a free-from claim is an absolute claim that should only be used following a rigorous assessment of the ingredients, production process, and environment. It is a guarantee that the food is suitable for those with an allergy or intolerance.

While a product may not need to declare the presence of any allergens, this does not automatically mean that the product can claim to be ‘free from’ any particular allergens.

Before making a free-from claim, brands should ensure that:

  • The product recipe does not use any ingredients or compound ingredients containing the specified ‘free from’ allergen.

  • The product is made in an environment strictly following good manufacturing practices (GMP) and allergen management practices.

  • A robust sampling and testing program suitable for the specified ‘free from’ allergen must be in place.

  • The communication of a ‘free from’ claim to consumers must comply with the relevant legal requirements.

It is worth noting that a “vegan” claim does not constitute a claim that the product is “free from animal ingredients”. Regardless of whether a “vegan” claim can be used, the above requirements still need to be met before a claim such as “milk free”, “fish free” or “egg free” can be used on a product.

Other Considerations

In addition to ‘free from’ allergen claims, various other free-from claims have also become popular on food products. While not covered by any specific legislation, these claims must always be truthful and not misleading.

For example, while it is acceptable to use a “free from additives” claim on products that do not contain any additives in the recipe, it is not permitted to state “free from nasty additives” or anything else that would imply that the use of additives is harmful or dangerous.

It is also not permitted to make a free-from claim on a product when all similar products would also be free from the specified substance. For example, a bottled water product could not legally claim to be “gluten free”. It is misleading to suggest that a food possesses special characteristics when in fact all similar foods possess such characteristics.

This same rule also applies to the claims “free from animal testing” or “free from animal cruelty”. While animal testing may commonly take place in other industries (such as cosmetics), it is not something that generally takes place within the food supplement industry. As a result, this claim would be viewed as misleading as it is highly unlikely that other similar products would be tested on animals or result in any form of animal cruelty.

About Sam Conebar

Sam, who has a degree in law, is the founder and managing director of Check My Label, a consultancy specializing in food compliance for the UK and EU markets.

He has over a decade of experience in the food and food supplements industry. He also has significant experience and knowledge working with brands, helping them create compliant formulations depending on their intended market and ensuring that the finished products meet the relevant labeling requirements. His comprehensive skill set spans project management, legal and scientific research, compliance audits, sourcing and procurement, product formulation, risk assessment, practical guidance provision, and adeptness in copywriting, advertising, and marketing.

Want to leverage Sam’s regulatory expertise?

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