The Free-From market: an investigation into this growing trend and its relevance to the 'speciality food & drink' sector.
Free-From foods are manufactured and targeted specifically at consumers who suffer from a food intolerance, allergy or food-related autoimmune condition. The latter includes 1% of the UK population affected by coeliac disease (Coeliac UK). Additionally, these foods are often relevant for people following selective avoidance diets. The range of products covered comprises those free from gluten, wheat, lactose or dairy, but may also exclude ingredients such as eggs, nuts or soya.
Having doubled in size between 2009 and 2014, the UK Free-From market is now worth around £365 million and nearly 40% of households contain someone avoiding specific foods or ingredients (Mintel). However, there is an almost even split between those people avoiding foods on medical grounds and those doing so for lifestyle reasons. With increasing celebrity endorsement of gluten-free diets and media attention towards healthy eating, there has been a sharp rise in new gluten-free products (10% of food and drink product launches between 2012 and 2014, according to Mintel). Furthermore, new allergen labelling legislation has increased awareness. Therefore, there is plenty of scope within the speciality food sector to offer quality products that take advantage of this growing trend.
Baked goods are particularly significant and Newburn Bakehouse, set up by Warburtons in 2011, became the first branded baker in the UK to enter this market and now provides a gluten and dairy-free artisan loaves range.
Nairns launched its gluten-free oatcake range in 2009 as a direct response to customer demand. Latest offerings include 'Impulse Packs', which allow farm shops and delis selling hot food and takeaways to provide gluten-free accompaniments for soups and salads. Lucy White, Marketing Manager, explains why Free-From goods often command higher prices, but should become more competitive in future. "For a product to be labelled Free-From, it needs not only to exclude that ingredient, but also to guarantee that there is no cross-contamination. Nairns' oats are grown, milled and baked in areas dedicated to producing gluten-free grains. This often means sourcing ingredients from further away and always involves higher costs due to the intensive cleaning process. However, as demand for gluten-free foods continues to rise, it is becoming easier to source these ingredients and hopefully prices will begin to reflect this."
For products to have strong commercial success, a wide consumer base is required. Jackie Barber of Easy Bean identifies how the company's gluten-free chickpea crispbreads and one-pot meals appeal to three types of consumers: "those with a general interest in food, its ingredients and provenance; those interested in nutrition and healthy eating and lastly those with a specific food intolerance."
However, products have to both appeal visually and win on taste profile, as Claire Ramsey of Mrs Crimbles explains. “Whilst once it was enough to have gluten-free equivalents of popular standard lines in fairly non-descript packaging, the consumer now expects a delicious tasting product which is also appealingly packaged. We’re responding by developing great tasting, attractively branded products which stand out not only in the Free-From sector, but against the competition in general. The trick is to never compromise on taste – great tasting products will appeal to mainstream consumers. The gluten-free element is an added attribute.”
Tony Goodman, CEO of Yumsh Snacks, owner of the Ten Acre snack brand, sees some clear trends. "We are noticing consumers opting for Free-From products as a lifestyle choice rather than necessarily having a medical need. Additionally, they are steering away from more mainstream snack brands and moving towards premium quality snacks. I put this down to taste, quality, innovation and a willingness to be more adventurous and experiment with new flavours. We are also seeing a definite growth in demand for popcorn - a lower calorie snacking alternative - and of course more generally any snacks that are healthier and gluten-free. Consumers are choosing a healthier and more holistic approach to wellness, incorporating Free-From foods in their diets."
This theme is echoed by Katja Thrane, Marketing Director of Rebel Kitchen, which makes dairy, gluten, nut and soya-free coconut milks. "Many people use flavoured milk drinks as a gap-filler between meals or as an afternoon pick me up. Going ‘dairy-free’ is no longer just for people with intolerances: it’s a long-term lifestyle choice. The ongoing consumer trend to try healthier snacks has made way for Free-From to become a major sector in the snacking industry."
The concept of using nutritious, natural ingredients is central to inSpiral, a UK pioneer in raw foods. The company's 'Visionary Products' are organic, raw, vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO and also free from soya and cane sugar. "People buy our products for a variety of reasons, including ethical or ecological", says co-founder Bella Willink. "They care for the environment and want to support products with eco packaging made using renewable energy. Increasingly, people realise the link between the food they eat and how they look and feel." Willink also comments on pricing. "Most goods can be manufactured for a lower price once production reaches a certain level of scale. Often Free-From products use ingredients of a higher quality, or even just more ingredients, but there is also the current small-scale level of production to consider."
Primrose Matheson, founder of Primrose Kitchen, sees a downside to the variety of Free-From foods now available and offers advice to consumers. "Many people buy gluten, dairy or fat-free products and, due to misinformation, assume they are healthy. Unfortunately most are not and are just mass-produced foods with names of ingredients so long you couldn't pronounce let alone recognise them! When you look at a list of ingredients, ask is this something that I could buy as a separate ingredient like oats or sunflower seeds? If it is, you're probably eating something good. Free-From foods don't necessarily offer any more nutritional benefits. It's down to the morals and intentions of the particular business."
The growing popularity of both paleolithic and vegan diets means that offering plant-based dairy-free options has gained greater relevance. Amanda Argent of Free-From soup business Soupologie explains: "Our USP is that we’re the only vegan, gluten & dairy-free soup company. The Free-From sector is rapidly growing and the feedback from our customers is that they love just being able to choose which flavour soup they fancy, rather than carefully having to scan a long list of ingredients to check if a recipe contains gluten, dairy, lactose or meat."
However, although new flavour combinations will attract speciality food consumers, traditional products retain strong appeal. Voakes Free From is the gluten and wheat-free range from Voakes Pies. The company recently won the 'FAIR trophy for the best freefrom food 2015' for its gluten, wheat, soya and dairy-free Traditional Pork Pie. Company Director Laura McGowan notes: "I find it surprising how much gluten-free customers are willing to travel in order to seek out products. We also find our regular customers are willing to spend a large amount of money in order to stock up their freezers. I think people are looking for something different nowadays and farm shops and delis are offering this. Gluten-free customers like to try different things too. Although the supermarkets have great offerings, it’s nice to try a brand you haven’t seen before and the supermarkets tend to stock the same things week in week out."
Free-From desserts form another important category within this sector. The Nude Spoon currently offers four flavours of organic, dairy, soya and gluten-free ice cream all made from plant ingredients. Company Director Anna Winterbottom explains: "We want our product to be a true competitor to a traditional ice cream, not just an alternative for people with dietary requirements. We hope that more people will realise just how amazing tasting, good for you and environmentally beneficial it is to include more plant-based foods in your diet. Some people don’t believe that it’s non-dairy when they try it!"
Louise Truswell of The Booja-Booja Company continues this theme. "Our truffles are sold in many fine food halls and delicatessens purely because of their quality and deliciousness. Their ‘Free-From’ credentials are often seen as just an added bonus. We offer people simple, clean, guilt-free treats that are about as wholesome as chocolate and ice cream can be and our priority is always deliciousness."
In contrast, some consumers want alternatives to chocolate, caffeine or other stimulants and Australian business, The Carob Kitchen, is launching its caffeine and gluten-free Banjo Bear and Bar ranges in the UK. With no added sugar, gluten, caffeine or theobromine, these will particularly appeal to speciality food consumers aiming to reduce sugar in their diets and to those looking for gluten-free sweet treats.
Andrew Feist of Eskal Foods, whose FreeNut Butter Crunchy is an award-winning nut-free alternative to peanut butter, believes it is important for speciality food outlets to stock Free-From products. "I think it’s critical if they want to be able to sell to ALL their customers, so they should make sure they have a least one offering in every category where they are available."
David Green of award-winning gluten-free craft brewery, Green's, also sees benefits for speciality food outlets stocking niche products in addition to regular offerings, noting the relevance on sales of a changing consumer base. "Farm shops and delis certainly need to look at the combination of growth markets, e.g. Free-From (15%+) and craft beer (89%+). Our traditional consumer base was dominated by a 50+ age profile and a disproportionate number of females drinking our beers. Now the age profile is lowering to 30+ and much more experimentation using our choice of beers equally between female and male drinkers."
There are many reasons for the speciality food sector to stock Free-From products, not least because the market is set to grow a further 51% between 2014 and 2019 (Mintel). Consumers avoiding ingredients such as gluten for medical reasons, as well as health-conscious 'lifestylers', those who prefer to scratch-cook and people searching for flavour variety are all targets for this sector. As Primrose Matheson says, "We need to get used to having Free-From food around us as normal. Offering greater choice will also mean more people can complete their whole shop in one place, rather than having to go to supermarkets for some things."
A version of this article was published in the January 2016 edition of Speciality Food Magazine.
All images by Robin Goldsmith, unless otherwise specified.