Special edition: 'The rise of free from'

The unprecedented rise of free from

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Gluten-free baked goods vegan free from

The free from sector was conceived for – and remains vital to – millions of consumers who deal with allergies, intolerances and related conditions, but today, the movement has evolved into something far more complex encompassing a host of consumer interests from health (free from sugar, fats, calories) to vegan (free from any animal products) to ethical (free from plastic).

According to Simon Wright, owner of OF+ Consulting and chair of the free from conference – which ran alongside the Allergy & Free From Show (staged in London, UK, at the beginning of the month) – free from has found itself at the center of a growing heightened consumer consciousness regarding issues like health & wellness, the environment, sustainability, animal welfare and religion.

“This ties it to the vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, natural, organic, Fairtrade, low sugar, low salt, and a host of other consumer interests, which begs the question: has free from been reimagined to mean something broader? Is free from now the ‘umbrella brand’ for a far more complex movement?”​ said Wright.

Tom Treverton, UK portfolio director for f2f events, which acquired the Allergy & Free From Show in 2009, told BakeryandSnacks the event has grown in synergy with the trend.

“Free from, as a food business, has gone through the roof, growing rapidly year-on-year and fast becoming almost a £1bn ($1.3bn) business in the UK alone,”​ he said.

“The reason for this is because [product developers] have woken up and are creating products for people who must have free from, but there has also been a simultaneous lifestyle trend.”

Creating a solution

While the UK gluten-free market is dominated by a handful of large, established gluten bakery brands – like Schar, Warburtons Gluten Free, Genius and Doves Farm – the sector is experiencing a flood of small to medium-sized enterprises producing innovating products.

“In the past eight years, we’ve seen so many new brands coming to the market and doing something different. And creating a solution is, of course, what free from is all about,”​ said Treverton.

However, Alistair Vince, CEO and founder of Watch Me Think said, despite recognizing how far free from has come in a short space of time, consumers want more.

They want a more improved range, but also a broader reach of free from products located next to normal products.

“It’s the desire to be normal. Consumers – especially those who have not had a choice in going free from because of a medical condition – do not want to be viewed as odd by eating or drinking something different. They do not want to appear difficult, awkward or high maintenance.

“By 2030, free from will become the norm and everyone will have something free from in their diet – free from sugar, salt, gluten and so forth,”​ he added.

Vince added there will also be a much bigger variety of foods because of advancing technology.

“Hopefully, there will be a free from product alternative to every product we already have,” ​he said.

Treverton concurred, stating, “Free from is nowhere near its ceiling – it still has a long way to go. There is so much innovation that is coming through. We’ve accelerated $230m in sales in the UK in the past 12 months and I see a lot more growth in the next 5-10 years.”

He noted that challenges like the higher price tag and where free from should sit on the supermarket shelf still need to be ironed out, but, like Wright, he believes the movement is undergoing a metamorphosis.

“I think what’s interesting is this definition of free from. What will it ultimately mean – free from allergens and free from gluten, but could it also mean free from meat? Could it mean free from chemicals, free from sugar, calories, even plastic – it’s all of those things,” ​said Treverton.

Ultimately, he said, the free from movement could birth a whole new label.

What it is, not what it isn’t

According to Val Kirillovs, research & insights director of HIM, 23% of UK shoppers currently purchase free from products.     

He noted the movement “carries a health halo, with three in 10 UK adults believing free from products are healthier than similar items that are not free from.”

Kirillovs said Gen Z and millennials are the ones responsible for the rapid rise of the movement, and today, 31% of consumers aged between 25 and 34 years have adopted a gluten-free diet, according to HIM data.

He said positioning a brand is vitally important, as a product developer has under a second to catch the shopper’s attention.

“Impulse buying has grown from 32% in 2016 to 37% in 2018,”​ he said, adding the message should concentrate of what it has rather than what it hasn’t.

“Marketers are picking up on this ...and changing the main message so that it doesn’t talk about what it’s free from but rather that it’s high in protein, nature and unsweetened, full of cultures and goodness, and so forth,”​ said Kirillovs.



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