Growing demand for free-from food has been tipped by analysts Mintel to boost the size of the market by 13% in 2016 to £531m ($769m), up from an estimated £470m ($681m) in 2015.
Over the six months to September 2015, a third of Brits UK consumers bought or ate free-from food, with 22% buying or eating gluten-free products, 19% dairy substitutes (such as soya cheese), 16% wheat-free and 16% lactose-free.
Wider product range
Market growth has been driven by shoppers widening the range of products they purchase, added Mintel, with 48% of those who eat or buy free-from saying they expect to eat more free-from food in the next year. It’s a trend predicted to take the UK market to £673m ($975m) by 2020.
“The free-from market enjoyed remarkable growth in 2015 and further growth is likely to come from the existing pool of users intending to spend more,” said Mintel head of UK food, drink & foodservice research Kiti Soininen.
“The growing availability of free-from food and drink products at mainstream supermarkets has allowed established users to widen their repertoires, with easy availability potentially prompting more regular use.”
The total number of gluten-free products stocked by major UK supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose) has risen from 158 SKUs (stock-keeping units) in 2010 to 585 in 2015, according to Brand View data (see graph).
Rising demand has also brought an increase in innovation, with 12% of new food products launched in the UK in 2015 carried a gluten-free claim, up from 7% in 2011.
Increasingly, UK consumers are opting to eat free-from products as part of a healthier lifestyle, rather than because they have a medical condition, found Mintel.
Over one in four Brits (27%) say they or someone in their household avoids certain ingredients as part of a general healthy lifestyle, while one in five (19%) do so due to an allergy or intolerance.
Two in five (39%) say they eat free-from foods because it makes them feel better, while one fifth (19%) say they eat them because they are trying to lose weight.
In the case of gluten specifically, 8% of UK consumers avoid it as part of a healthy lifestyle, compared to 5% who report avoidance due to an allergy or intolerance.
While the free-from market was benefiting from a ‘health halo’ effect, this carried with it risks, said Soininen.
“It leaves the free-from food category exposed to changes in consumer opinion and media coverage,” she added. “The importance of health in driving uptake also means companies need to ensure nutrition profiles are best in class.”
Mintel found over half (54%) of those who eat free-from would stop doing so if they thought these were less healthy than standard offerings.
Free-from price barrier
The biggest barrier to purchase of free-from food was price, found Mintel.
Two-fifths (39%) of UK consumers who do not eat or buy free-from food told analysts it is too expensive compared to standard food. More than a fifth (22%) of non-users said free-from products do not taste as good as standard alternatives, while 20% said the quality is not as good as that of standard food.
“Among non-users, price remains a key barrier to wider adoption of free-from foods,” said Mintel head of UK food, drink & foodservice research Kiti Soininen.
“This comes as little surprise given that the free-from variants of many staple foods are noticeably more expensive than the standard ones. The growth of the market should bring about scale benefits, helping to bring down prices to some extent.”