Free-from was one of the fastest-growing grocery items in 2017. Nielsen data showed that shoppers sought out items without gluten or dairy, resulting in a 19% rise in sales, accounting for £146.6m more being spent in this area.
So what’s to come in 2019? Claire Nuttal, founder of the Brand Incubator, predicted that 2019 will be the year that free-from becomes a category that leads innovation, rather than chasing solutions from existing products.
There’s an increasing focus on allergens emerging, and nut-free products are also predicted to grow – as are palm-oil-free goods.
The push into nut-free products has already begun too, with Speciality Breads removing nuts entirely from its two bakeries and entire product portfolio at the start of January.
The move required the bakery business to drop two lines and undergo a rigorous restructuring process to ensure it was compliant.
“At the beginning of last year, we saw an increase in the number of customers requesting nut-free breads,” said managing director Simon Cannell. “As we only had a couple of breads containing nuts, we made the decision for both our bakeries to become completely nut-free.
“Allergens are a concern for every catering establishment, so we wanted to make sure that our customers have complete peace of mind and we can provide chefs and consumers with a clear guarantee and assurance.”
Speciality Breads also had its 60-strong range of breads registered by the Vegan Society as suitable for plant-based eaters.
As part of its new free-from status, the company worked on product development to launch a new nut-free, vegan burger bun. Named the Eden Burger Bun, it is a brand-new bake that blends in a small amount of potato to deliver a soft, flavoursome crumb texture under the golden, soft top crust.
“This bun won’t go soggy when you add relish or sauce, and it’s the perfect accompaniment for today’s hyper-trendy beetroot, jackfruit, chickpea and other vegan and veggie burgers,” according to the company.
The founder of vegan restaurant Stem + Glory, which recently opened its flagship site in London, has also predicted nut-free desserts are going to grow in the plant-based market.
Palm oil pressures
Even palm-oil-free products are getting more attention after Iceland led the charge in 2018. Ocado added a palm-oil-free section to its website offering over 5,000 products, from bread and breakfast cereal to pizza and crisps.
“Palm oil is a key issue for many of our customers, becoming an increasingly important factor in the choices people make while buying everyday essentials,” said Alice Mannion, Ocado’s head of grocery merchandising and product.
“However, it can be hard to find products that are free from palm oil. With the addition of the new aisle, we have introduced an efficient and easy-to-use route to a huge range of palm-oil-free products, accessed at the click of a button.”
Meanwhile, Tesco boosted its own-label range for confectionery and wrapped bakery goods under its Free From Kitchen Co brand at the start of this year. The retailer added three dairy-free sharing bars of chocolate – the milk variant featuring rice milk, while the dark and white options were made with maize flour – along with chocolate slab cakes in Rich Brownie and Salted Caramel flavours.
So what is Sparkie feeling when it comes to free-from?
This year it is likely there will be continued growth in all forms of health-focussed and free-from food. Expansions in the type of free-from products are predicted by some sources, in addition to a great desire for both more cost-friendly and flavourful products, as free-from integrates itself and takes over an expanding shelf space.
Retailers have fully embraced the free-from trend as of last year, so I expect that shelf space to either grow or become hard fought over as their own products enter the mix to compete with the brands.
Nut-free is an obvious inclusion to this due to the severity of reactions to this allergen, but it is relatively difficult to maintain down the supply chain. Similar to gluten, nut allergies only require a small amount to trigger a reaction, so it requires entirely nut-free production facilities in order to ensure safety of products bearing this label.