From dairy-free spreads and gluten-free breads, to meat-free sausages and vegan pies, the rise of free-from foods has fuelled a UK market worth £238m, according to Kantar Worldpanel.
In part this is because of wider public awareness of allergies and food intolerances. According to charity Allergy UK, as many as 25 million people (about half of the UK population) say they suffer from a food intolerance, with gluten, wheat and dairy products among the most common agents.
Target crossover consumers
According to Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, who runs the annual FreeFrom Food Awards, all kinds of consumers now choose free-from foods - not just people with specific allergies or intolerances.
She maintains that this is good news for c-stores. “It’s not necessarily best to target coeliacs, or groups like them, as the local health store will probably be able to serve their needs better.”
Berriedale-Johnson believes that the best entry point is in categories such as cakes and sweets, which consumers buy into without necessarily noticing products are free-from.
“Retailers wanting to try out free-from products could take energy bars such as the Nakd range,” she says. “They’re gluten- and dairy-free, but still appeal to non-allergy sufferers. That means there’s very little risk from the retailers’ side.”
But celebrity food fashion has helped free-from grab attention, too. With stars such as Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow praising a gluten- and wheat-free way of life in interviews, it’s no surprise that consumers have started to pick up on the trend.
And so have suppliers. Last year both Heinz and Warburton’s were the first household names to get into gluten-free with gluten-free pasta sauce and the Newburn Bakehouse range respectively.
Although free-from products may have once been tucked away next to the mung beans on the back shelves of your local health shop, today they’re an increasingly common sight in mainstream c-stores.
Adrian Buck, manager from Budgen’s Chorleywood in Hertfordshire, has seen first-hand how the free-from movement has gained momentum.
“It was about February or March last year that customers started to ask about gluten-free foods,” he says. “The whole of Chorleywood just suddenly seemed to catch on with it at once!”
Like any good retailer, Buck says that if customers enquire about products he doesn’t stock he’ll try to get them on the shelves, where they’ll become a fixture if they sell. And he believes that’s certainly happened with gluten-free.
“It really was in response to customer demand as more people came in and asked for them,” he says. “We’ve seen it grow to the point where I’ve now been able to get a whole section of gluten-free products in ambient, plus a few lines in frozen.”
He adds: “We do Warburton’s gluten-free bread plus bread flour, and a full range of cakes and a muffin mix,” he says. “We do a lot of the Mrs Crimbles biscuit range, too, which is also gluten-free.”
“Customers come in and say ‘Wow, I didn’t realise you did so many gluten-free products!’ They’re really impressed.”
So who are these gluten-free customers? According to Buck, it’s not necessarily people with allergies or intolerances, just regular customers who have read about the benefits of free-from in the media.
Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, organiser of the FreeFrom Food Awards, believes that this ‘mainstreaming’ of gluten- and wheat-free products has opened up the market to many more people.
“People today who buy free-from might believe they have an allergy or an intolerance,” she says. “But they’re also likely to think that buying free-from is healthier, and even better for the environment.”
Despite big manufacturers increasingly buying into free-from foods, Berriedale-Johnson says that the market is mainly made up of smaller brands - which can be a boon for independents seeking out unique products.
Meat-free on the increase
Mintel says that meat-free is on the rise with a 21% increase in value sales between 2008 and 2013, to reach a cool £625m. It singles out Quorn as a hot stock, which it reports is the most widely-eaten meat-free choice.
Surprisingly, Mintel claims that last year’s horsemeat scandal has done little to turn traditional consumers on to the meat-free category, citing a perception of poor flavour and texture instead as two big challenges for the market.
However, the Vegetarian Society thinks the scandal will turn more people veggie. The Vegetarian Society’s Liz O’Neill told reporters when the story hit that “any news story about the meat industry introduces some people to the reality of how meat is produced, and a portion of them will choose to go vegetarian as a result.”
A November 2013 study by the Eating Better Alliance showed that 25% of the public say they are eating less meat than a year ago.
“Although brand names such as Heinz are releasing free-from products, 50% of the market is still made up of companies of just one or two people. And many, like Voakes Pies - a Yorkshire company that makes gluten- and wheat-free meat pies - has a strong regional angle.”
She adds that because independents are often ‘local-orientated’, connecting with local companies can give them the edge over the typical Tesco Metro who can’t supply a true connection with the community.
“It can be as easy as just doing a quick Google search of your local area for free-from suppliers. It works well for smaller free-from producers because they’re often happy to supply small amounts of stock, especially if they get useful feedback from retailers about what sells,” she says.
One c-store manager who’s made going local work for his shop is Edward White, from Spar Calver in Derbyshire. He’s gained strong sales of local company Litton Larder’s gluten-free puddings, where he finds the brand fits right into his farm shop-style store.
“When I set the store up I was looking for local suppliers, and Litton’s Larder was one of the people I first approached,” says White.
“For us, it’s just something a little bit different that we can offer customers. We advertise that they’re gluten-free and homemade through POS material and also the fact that they’re made only four miles from the store.
“It’s the local idea that really excites people. We’d definitely look into buying more gluten-free lines if they’re made locally.”
However local they may be, contemporary wheat-, gluten- or dairy-free products have to taste good, too. Berriedale-Johnson says that it’s this element of free-from that has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade.
“I go back to the days when you’d cook glute n-free pasta and end up with a load of brown gunk at the bottom of the pan,” she says. “Or gluten-free bread that was so hard you could stub your toe on it! Since the supermarkets got involved in the 1990s the quality has got so much better.”
As well as ensuring they taste good, she says manufacturers are trying hard to banish the free-from category’s reputation as ‘artificial’ foods, packed with chemical fillers to make up the missing ingredients.
“There’s a real movement starting in the US toward free-from foods that have natural ingredients,” she points out.
It’s an idea echoed by Bob Trice, managing director of DS-gluten-free, who has commissioned 15 new products to join its 2014 free-from portfolio.
“One of the challenges facing us is guaranteeing that gluten-free bread stays fresh up until the expiration date. While many companies are turning to preservatives to prevent their seven-day bread from turning stale, here at DS-gluten free we’ve developed cutting-edge packaging to avoid adding unnecessary chemicals to our products,” he says.
Retailers’ feedback may suggest that gluten-free is the star of the free-from sector right now, but Buck believes that lactose-free is also bubbling under.
“We’ve had lots of customers asking for lactose-free products, but it’s really hard to source them from suppliers,” he says. “I think the demand’s definitely there, but availability means I can’t have a lactose-free section in the shop, too. It’s something I’d like to see in the future.”
Brigitta Holland, brand manager from Swedish Glace at Unilever UK, says that lactose-free products could see a similar boom to gluten- and wheat-free.
“With one in five people experiencing symptoms of lactose intolerance, and consumers increasingly seeking products for specific reasons such as veganism and vegetarianism, we anticipate demand for products in this sector to continue to grow,” she says.
Genius launches clever crumpets
Gluten-free brand Genius has added a new crumpets line to its range of free-from bakery essentials, which include seeded loaves, seeded rolls and bloomers. It’s also acquired two new bakeries to keep the bakes coming.
Unilever scoops up Swedish Glace
Swedish Glace, the dairy-free ice-cream brand, is a familiar name with vegans and those who are lactose intolerant . And now it’s got a familiar name behind it, as Unilever UK takes over its sales and distribution. Swedish Glace will feature alongside Unilever’s ice cream portfolio including Ben & Jerry’s and Carte D’Or.
New gluten-free sauces
Making the most of gluten-free doesn’t have to mean stocking specialist products it can mean simply remerchandising the food already on your shelves. For instance, the Flavours of India cooking sauce range is gluten-free.
DS-gluten free boosts portfolio
Dr Schär UK, parent company of retail brand DS-gluten free, has added 15 new products, including quiche Lorraine and apple crumble. “Gluten-free foods are commanding more shelf space and we are seeing an increasing number of c-stores stocking them,” says Dr Schar managing director Bob Trice.