The free-from market is a growing behemoth. Kantar Worldpanel figures show that the market value surged by 40% to £806m in 2017, while Grocer research reveals that the number of Brits who regularly shop for free-from foods more than doubled in 2017 compared to the past two years, rising from 19% to 43%.
But there seems to have been a slow turnaround with this trend in terms of retailers’ own-label offerings.
Now, Waitrose is entering into new territory with the release of its first lactose-free products. It is also relaunching its own-label free-from range with new gluten-free products, packaging and tastes.
For those who sort of know what lactose is (but not really), it is the natural sugar present in milk or milk products. Intolerance occurs when the body doesn't produce the enzymes needed to digest it, causing bloating, indigestion and other symptoms.
Waitrose is testing the lactose-free waters with four widely consumed products: Cypriot halloumi, Italian mozzarella, Greek feta and natural yoghurt. These Mediterranean staples have carefully had their lactose removed without compromising on flavour, according to the retailer
A quick search of the lactose-free products available from other supermarkets brings up only branded versions, encompassing flavoured and natural yoghurts, mozzarella, cheddar, brie, cream and mascarpone.
Market research analyst Technavio has forecast that the global lactose-free food market will grow by 11% over the next three years. Driving the trend are rising levels of lactose intolerance, particularly in some ethnic groups, while lactose-free ice cream is expected to expand at a faster rate in coming years, along with beverages.
Waitrose will roll out 18 new gluten-free products between now and January 2019, spanning categories like bakery, breakfast and sweet treats.
The supermarket noted that gluten-free is one of the fastest growing categories in the supermarket industry.
Demand comes from both shoppers with gluten and dairy allergies – which affect one in three households in the UK – and people looking for free-from products as a lifestyle choice, with the latter making up 22% of shoppers in the free-from aisle, it added.
"As the free-from category continues to grow from strength to strength, we know our customers are highly engaged with the products available and often look to us to lead the way on innovation,” said Waitrose’s free-from buyer, Kate Rider.
“The launch of our new Waitrose & Partners range will offer customers a market-leading selection of products, and we hope the newly developed range offers more choice to those looking for delicious-tasting free-from alternatives.”
Breaking into bakery are a range of gluten-free breads, rolls and cakes. These include sourdough, sliced seeded cob, soft white rolls, seeded rolls, sliced seeded sandwich thins, fruited tea cakes, pumpkin seed and kale toasts, and date and walnut toasts.
Bouncing into the breakfast aisle are gluten-free oats and cereal, including porridge with added seeds and quinoa, porridge with dates and cacao nibs, and puffed rice cereal.
Sliding into sweet treats are gluten-free products like millionaire shortbreads, chocolate and hazelnut mini cupcakes, caramel flavour mini cupcakes, chocolate slices that are also made without milk, butter flapjacks, and fruit, nut and seed granola squares.
So is Sparkie fired up by free-from?
It is fairly obvious for the retailers to start buying into this trend for free-from and health food. What is really surprising is how long it has taken them to do it. Typically we see retailers acting after a year of a continuous trend, due to the time that the phase-gate process takes. The free-from growth started years ago and it was fairly obvious to everyone that it was going to stick around.
I will be interested in seeing first hand whether the products do what they say and compete on quality with the standard, because that has never yet been true for any other free-from product that has tried to make that claim. If it does, it could really be big business for them if the products aren’t price prohibitive – another common issue with this market.