“If you had a food intolerance or allergy, then you usually went to health food shops or culturally relevant retailers,” said Alex Brassill, founder of Warrington-based JNCK Bakery.
“The free from section was small and tucked away in supermarkets. It’s now much more mainstream.”
As more consumers became aware of the multiple health benefits in cutting the likes of sugar and dairy from their diets, the more they demanded - both in variety and quality.
Industry responded with verve and today a far wider, and more exciting and enticing selection of offerings can be found down dedicated supermarket aisles.
While the majority of consumers choose the free from lifestyle as a personal choice, many don’t have that luxury, with 1-2% of the UK population suffering from food allergies. Some allergens are deadly and responsible for hospital admissions with anaphylaxis.
It’s also estimated that more than 5 million people in the UK live with diabetes, which costs the National Health Service (NHS) around £10bn a year.
“Raising awareness of this means that people are recognising that making lifestyle interventions can be effective in reducing the risk, leading to introductions of sugar-free and low sugar alternatives to baked goods and snacks,” said Brassill.
He noted the recent pandemic - with all the focus on health and wellbeing - boosted consumer awareness of the category.
“Consumers had more time to consider their meals and ingredients, and home-cooking rose considerably.
“It was more than just banana bread: there was a 33% increase in the consumption of fresh fruit and 31% in vegetables. The free from market grew more,” said Brassill.
“And as younger, more health-conscious generations grow up and take responsibility for their own shopping, the sector is set to continue growing. It’s already worth £3.4bn in the UK alone.”
So what do free from producers need to consider to differentiate themselves in an increasingly busy market?
Bank on science
“I’m a biomedical scientist and fascinated by nutrition and using science to create better food.
“It was the thought of creating a healthy alternative to the rich gooey cookies I loved as a child that first inspired JNCK.
“Two years and 1,200 tests later, we perfected our non-HFSS cookies: a bespoke, low sugar, protein chocolate cookies that replaces sugar with a unique sweetness technology.
“It took a long time to perfect and it’s that approach that is needed - a scientific one, with time and patience. That will deliver more groundbreaking products in the future,” said Brassill.
Be more inclusive of all allergies
According to Allergy UK, around 26 million people in Europe are estimated to suffer from some sort of food allergy - “and this is rising. Alongside that rise, general digestive sensitivities are more common, or at least, people are more aware of them and know better how to deal with them.
“This means people are actively seeking out foods that will enable them to be comfortable and safe.”
Brassill said social media is really coming to the fore here.
“We need to continue to be aware of allergies and the role they play in people’s food choices across different age ranges and consumer demographics.
“There are 14 legally recognised allergens in the UK and of course, a single product cannot address all of them at once. But I expect we’ll see more products replacing more of them, as the science improves.”
Focus on environmental appeal
“The reasons for purchasing free from go beyond ingredients, as modern consumers become more interested in knowing the wider implications of the goods they buy.
“This provides more opportunities for certain sectors. Dairy-free and meat-free manufacturers, for example, can capitalise on consumer priorities by clearly communicating how their products can help reduce environmental footprints.”
JNCK Bakery is very conscious of the importance of the environment.
“Our cookies do not include any palm oil and they are sold in fully recyclable packaging,” said Brassill.
Think price points
The impact of the current cost-of-living-crisis is becoming tragically clear, with 1 in 4 UK schoolchildren banking on free school meals to get at least one nutritious meal a day, while the fact that there are foodbanks than McDonald’s outlets today has been widely reported in the media.
“Sadly, science, awareness of allergies and research into more sustainable solutions does not always come cheap - and going forward, the challenge for manufacturers and producers will be to somehow marry the cost of the research, the raw materials and the manufacturing, with a price point that works for all,” said Brassill.
“With 49% of UK consumers wanting to eat well, it will be about getting the balance right - and this is a big challenge for us all.”
Get clever with marketing
Free from is not the USP (unique selling point) it once was and Brassill said brands need to go back to the old methods of targeting their audiences as more competitors join the mix.
“Think shelf standout,” he said.
“At JNCK, we’ve gone for bright colours with our brand and are deliberately looking to appeal to young people in all our consumer approaches.
“We have way less sugar, salt and fat than other cookies and we are the first in this sector to provide such a healthy option, but we’ve seen what happened in other snacking areas like crisps and doughnuts. More will join the party at some point.”
Free From but functional
Today’s free from consumer - like those without the shackles of food allergies - want their snacks to be more than just a safe treat. They’re seeking out additional benefits, such as fibre, to boost their health.
“Government guidelines say our dietary fibre intake should increase to 30g a day as part of a healthy balanced diet. However, most adults are only eating an average of about 20g day, so we need to find ways to help the population increase their intake.
“Our cookies have five times the fibre of existing cookie products on the market,” claims Brassill.
He added, “It’s not just health foods that should be healthy, or Free From foods that are free from. We all have a responsibility to bring better versions of existing products to market.”
“The free from label itself is the thing I see changing as we progress.
“More ingredients, more technology, more awareness of health and more research will mean more free from products, turning what was once a niche sector and a tucked away aisle into a standard expectation and a mainstream food market.
“This is good news. It will be up to us all to continue to innovate and keep it exciting.”