Free-from food has seen a slowing down of innovation as it has evolved from niche to mainstream offering, but there is still so much that can be done, according to Claire Nuttall, founder of The Brand Incubator.
The sector is being influenced by the shift in healthy eaters, with consumers falling into three distinct categories, Nuttall said at Food Matters Live.
There’s the hedonists, the hardcore vegans who will pay what it takes to get gluten-free foods and healthy options, then there’s the lifestylers who have good intentions by starting off the week well, but lose the plot towards the end of the week, and then the mass market that is looking for little touches to eat healthier.
Three years ago, the mass market weren’t interested in free-from unless it tasted the same as the real thing, while healthy lifestylers and hedonists were keen on it but only made up 20% of the population.
“We were screening for a new healthy soft drink a couple of months ago and we benchmarked it against kefirs and kombucha, and the database of new product launches from Cambridge showed the healthy lifestylers and hedonists represented by 62% of the UK population,” she said. “It’s quite exciting. A figure like 62% of the UK is actually quite a significant audience to go for in free-from rather than feeling it’s a small niche... It feels like there is a lot more potential.”
Nuttall sets out ten key ways brands can move the free-from market forward.
1. Ironing out the experience
A big challenge still exists in how individuals experience free-from products in terms of taste, texture, smell and sight. For example, Nuttall recently used a plant-based milk in a cup of coffee and it curdled.
Products need to be used in the same way as their normal counterparts. “We need to sort out those anomalies in experience and visual appearance for every day usage like teas, coffees and cereals,” she said.
2. Super safe
Given some of the recent disasters in allergic reactions, safety needs to be key, and Nuttall wants to see labelling reprioritised. Currently, allergens are easily accessible on the back of pack, but she said it needs to be clear on the front. “We need to make it obvious so there isn’t any guesswork on first visual appreciation of a pack of what you’re actually getting,” she said.
There’s also no point in brands creating free-from products just because they can. “Any new innovation that doesn’t have a real need or benefit is going to struggle to cut through,” she said.
3. Mass premiumisation
Currently, free-from products can be defined in two ways; the expensive ones people buy in a blue moon and the ones that have mass market appeal to both healthy lifestylers and people with intolerances.
She suggests free-from needs players like Tyrrells, who came into the crisp market and took the category up a notch, without making it elitist.
“Free-from has space to go beyond the basics to upgrade affordably to something that’s a bit more special. You’ve got your basics and your staples, but it feels there can be another level of special-ness without being super premium,” she said.
This could mean looking at the trends generally in food and drink, rather than specific free-from trends, to bring in the mainstream market.
4. Targeted specific offerings
Existing brands could move into kids or teenage offerings, create products aimed at different life stage segments and nutritional needs or tap into other trends such as marketing a snack as high in protein, rather than just free-from.
Convenience and on the go also needs to addressed to make a product worth buying.
5. Free-from needs to be category leading and not following now
For the past five years, free-from has been chasing solutions for existing categories and it’s time for people to be entrepreneurial, said Nuttall. This means looking at creating new categories based on needs and desires, rather than looking at categories that exist already and replicating or duplicating.
“If the mass market world is merging with the pure intolerance world than there is no reason why 100% free-from can’t be merging with everyday lifestyle needs and requirements,” she said.
This could be done by using technology to create new tastes or textures or thinking about pack and format innovation, which could include smaller or thin formats.
6. Normalisation over nutrition
Even if free-from snacks are tasty and nutritious, if they look like miniature slugs then they won’t sell as they also need to have visual appeal, said Nuttall.
Three months ago, Nuttall was testing a free-from snack that had a higher nutritional profile than similar snacks on the market, but it didn’t look normal. Consumers didn’t want the extra nutrition – they wanted something that looked familiar, she found.
It’s also worth thinking about innovating to a normal price point that will get a brand a retail presence.
“People are getting used to having less in a packet from mainstream crisps manufacturers anyway, it’s a time when you can get anyway with something visually looking less big as it’s being done for the right reasons, and snacks and sweets have also helped drive that in the category,” she commented.
7. Naturally nutritious
Nuttall predicts a growth in live cultures going into the free-from category and it won’t just be limited to drinks. She said gut and digestion-friendly ingredients will be key, along with launching products that are as clean as possible. She also suggests looking at fish as an alternative protein to plants and meat.
8. Free lifestyles
It’s about free-from both in the inside and out. This means it’s not just about the product, but what the brand represents as people are looking beyond the food for lifestyle concepts that support the planet and sustainability. Think about eliminating plastic and using ugly fruits and food waste during recipe development, said Nuttall.
9. Ethnic originality
Everything in the category currently seems quite anglicised, said Nuttall, either Scandi, English or British and it’s time for ethnicity to be introduced into free-from to grow it.
This could mean world ingredients like fruits, grains and seeds or full flavours based on culture norms and ancestral rituals, as long as they are done with credibility.
10. Time for full integration into the supermarket
Nuttall is advocating for the specialist sector to be ditched and for free-from to be integrated back into fixtures to encourage consumers to trade up and eat cleaner, better and healthier.
Alternatively, she said the free-from aisle could operate as a cook’s larder with the ingredients stored there and other food solutions integrated into the relevant parts of the store.