The free-from category is buzzing with innovation right now, especially because it encapsulates such a wide range of dietary requirements and common allergens, including gluten, nuts, peanuts, egg, dairy, sesame and soya. Retail and on-the-go products are emerging at pace, as well as hospitality and high-street outlets looking to keep up with trends and essential legislation.
This is an established category that’s also in growth, as 97% of UK households regularly buy food or drink marketed as ‘free-from’ (Kantar, March 2019). The market is estimated to be worth £837m, having grown 37.5% in 2018. It’s a competitive but increasingly fragmented category, where new challenger brands jostle for shelf space alongside more established players.
Here what’s happening in free-from now, and what’s coming next.
1. Breaking boundaries
Free-from products are innovative and flavour-forward. Gone are the days of cardboard bread and dry pasta, as emerging items create new categories of their own using innovative ingredients like pea protein, beetroot or fermented carrot flours, or aquafaba egg white. In other instances, innovation brings free-from closer to the original product, such as Oatly releasing Whole, Semi and Skinny SKUs so consumers can swap like for like. Science and technology help innovators break free-from boundaries, such as Edlong food scientists who create dairy-like flavours and mouthfeel from plant-based products.
2. Always read the label
We are already seeing greater clarity and accountability in hospitality and retail labelling, as brands face up to their responsibilities. ‘Natasha’s Law,’ named after the young woman who died after eating a Pret sandwich, is due to come into force by 2021 and will require all food businesses to clearly label the full ingredients of pre-packaged food. However, increased precautions can also mean increased limitations for allergy sufferers as large corporations pass the buck; Costa Coffee now warns against cross-contamination with nut milk on all its coffee machines, which means allergy sufferers can no longer confidently order a Costa cuppa.
3. No alibi
There are not enough dairy- and animal-free production factories in the UK to meet demand, according to a report from The Grocer, which is a restriction for established brands but a business opportunity for start-ups. So-called ‘alibi labelling,’ which says that a product ‘may contain’ or is ‘made in a factory that contains’ allergens only gets brands so far. Gü and M&S both recently came under fire because their vegan products warned they ‘may contain’ milk or eggs. However, dessert brands like Pudology or Freaks of Nature are capitalising on this by opening dedicated facilities at pace to get one over on less agile brands. Freaks of Nature now even produce own-label and co-branded free-from products for other companies from their site.
4. Fully functional
Functional food and nootropics are expanding into the free-from market. We’ve seen CBD and nootropic ingredients like green tea and ginkgo biloba make an impression in snacking, and so brands making tasty, convenient, free-from food also benefit from a double-win by adding functional benefits. Nooro snack bars feature ‘natural nootropics’ like CBD, theanine amino acid to reduce anxiety, or tyrosine amino acid to improve attention and focus. They also happen to be the fastest-selling product in Planet Organic in the past 10 years – consumers are clearly hungry for functional, free-from foods.
5. Money talks
Free-from is rapidly becoming more affordable, as increased demand and competition brings prices down. The University of Hertfordshire revealed that gluten-free products were on average 159% more expensive than non-allergen equivalents. Perhaps prompted by this information, Lidl introduced its own-brand gluten-free range, facing off against Asda, Tesco, M&S, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s options. As a result, more own-brand and budget free-from options will come into play. Aldi launched its gluten-free biscuits, pastas and snack bars in May 2019 and Costco sells Just egg replacement in bulk in the US, which demonstrates the appetite for affordable free-from options at scale.
6. Let’s stay together
Historically supermarkets keep free-from products in a ghettoed aisle, but we’re seeing increased normalisation and integration across supermarket layouts at Sainsbury’s, for example. It not only saves getting lost in the aisles but reflects the growth in ‘lifestyle’ free-from eaters who don’t have an allergy but still want to choose between allergen-free and standard products on the same shelf. Morrisons, however, is bucking the trend with a destination section with ambient, chilled and frozen free-from foods all in one place.
7. Naturally free-from
Consumers are looking for healthier, sustainable ingredients in free-from products, rather than sci-fi replacements. Flaxseed or aquafaba are a natural switch for commercial egg replacer, for example, or psyllium husk powder replaces the rather unappetising sounding xanthan gum binding agent. New products innovate with whole foods in free-from products; Bambeanies’ cereal uses nutrient-dense beans to create healthier free-from cereal, for example. This is especially appealing to ‘lifestyle’ free-from consumers, or consumers motivated by environmental concerns.
8. The power of language
Free-from foods benefit from a health halo, where they’re perceived as healthier by association because of how the product is described. Purpose Foods uses language like ‘no nasties’ to describe its prebiotic snack bars that are free-from gluten, dairy and soy, for example. Brands will continue to tap into consumers’ health concerns and anxieties, but we expect to see some more legislation around health claims and language as the category grows. Gluten-free has benefited from the swell of interest in gut health, for example, as it’s implied that wheat-free products are ‘better for you.’ However, a 2018 study from the University of Hertfordshire found that gluten-free foods are typically higher in sugar, fat and salt than non-allergen formulations and have ‘no nutritional advantages.’
9. Direct to consumer
Following in the wake of Graze and Hello Fresh, direct-to-consumer delivery or subscription models open up a new market for free-from brands. The Goodness Project delivers vegan and gluten-free gifts, snacks and high-end products to satisfy time-poor consumers looking for allergen-free solutions. Similarly, Life Box delivers monthly goodies whilst niche companies like Elvira’s Secret Pantry deliver artisan, gluten-, dairy- and yeast-free bread weekly. These products are convenient, and also completely targeted to consumers free-from diets.
10. Less is more
Free-from used to mean ‘not quite so good,’ but advanced food technology and consumer demand now focuses on mouthfeel, texture and taste to celebrate the added benefits of free-from food – rather than what it’s lacking. Gü pots are ‘fabulously free from’ and celebrate ingredients like Spanish lemon and coconut cream alternatives; M+lk Plus describes itself as ‘no naughties nut juice’ and comes in salted honeycomb hazelnut or strawberry cheesecake cashew flavours. Free-from is therefore becoming more confident, and also more premium, than the standard versions of the same product.
Looking to the future, the biggest free-from opportunities are in snacks, cakes and home cooking ingredients, and on-the-go. In order to compete on the shelves, brands need to ensure that free-from products continue to meet consumers’ taste expectations as well as following wider trends on reduced sugar and stronger health credentials.