With Coeliac Awareness Week taking place this month (10-16 May), Jane Wolfe focuses on the buoyant free-from sector and how it’s continually innovating to ensure allergy reactors don’t feel excluded
With ‘free-from’ now used as a broad term to encompass any foods that are free from any element that may be unwanted/unhealthy, such as animal products, fat or sugar, its original function to indicate the absence of certain allergens can get overlooked.
But for those with, for example, coeliac disease – which according to Coeliac UK is one in hundred people in the UK, with around half a million left undiagnosed – avoiding gluten-containing foods isn’t a lifestyle choice but a necessity. This doesn’t mean, however, they’re prepared to put up with joyless, bland products.
“Whilst safety is the number one priority, the free-from consumer is looking for an equitable experience,” explains Cressida Langlands, director of the FreeFrom Food Awards (FFFAs). “They have a desire to enjoy food in the same way others can, and whilst living with food allergies and intolerances restricts choice it doesn’t restrict the desire for great-tasting food.”
Breadth of choice
The improvements and expansion of the free-from food market means that those with intolerances or allergies no longer need to feel they’re missing out on quality, taste or treats. Free-from foods are now available in categories ranging from breakfast foods, bread, pasta and pizzas to snack foods, drinks, ready-meals, desserts and confectionery. And although the initial ‘health halo’ placed upon free-from options was often misplaced, the nutritional credentials have improved hugely, and small, specialist producers are moving into the space.
Nowhere is the breadth of choice this sector offers more in evidence than at the FFFAs which, since their beginnings in 2008, have seen 5,000 free-from products tested by a specialist judging panel. “Having started with eight categories – four gluten-free, two dairy-free, one egg-free and one wheat-free – we now have 26,” says Langlands. “There’s been so much improvement in the free-from offer as a whole. Thinking back to even five years ago when you could find gluten-free pies, for example, but they’d not be free-from any other allergens. Now there are more and more multiple-allergy-friendly products. And the sheer scale – there is so much choice now. The artisan free-from category is growing as well; it wasn’t long ago that the best gluten-free bread was only available on prescription, and now free-from food is firmly established on the shelf, easy to find and commonly hand-crafted by skilled artisans.”
“Whilst safety is the number one priority, the free-from consumer is looking for an equitable experience”
Citing Kantar World Panel, Langlands says that 97.5% of households now shop for free-from foods and during 2020 free-from grew by 18.4%, with the number of ranges rising from 766 to 836.
“The growth in the sector can be attributed to several factors,” says Clare Marriage, founder of gluten-free food brand FREEE. “Firstly, a lot of growth is now coming from consumers interested in the benefits of reducing or cutting out gluten for lifestyle reasons, rather than for medical conditions. In research commissioned by FREEE, 30% of gluten-free shoppers cited improved health and weight loss as their main reason for buying gluten-free. Secondly, the quality of gluten-free foods has massively improved in recent years and often matches non-gluten-free foods on taste. Other macro trends are helping to drive growth too. One of these is the rise of plant-based eating – FREEE’s range, for example, is not only gluten-free but suitable for vegans too.”
Marriage says the UK gluten-free flour market rose 58.2% over the last year, with another area seeing strong growth being cake and baking mixes, up by 46.1%. FREEE has been tapping into this trend with its range of seven mixes including a Gluten Free Sponge mix, which is also free from milk and peanuts.
The COVID connection
Bryan Martins, marketing and category director at Ecotone UK, owner of gluten-free brand Mrs Crimble’s, expects the free-from category to continue expanding and believes COVID has had a definite impact on the sector. “During stages of panic buying in the pandemic, we saw more customers ‘experimenting’ in the free-from category, perhaps due to a lack of stock of their regular buys. This has resulted in more people joining the category.”
Mrs Crimble’s latest launch – Vegan Coconut Macaroons – has also tied into the plant-based and flexitarian trends, which Martins says are leading new customers to the brand. “We are seeing strong growth in our Vegan Chocolate and Coconut Macaroons. The launch of Vegan Coconut Macaroons was the largest free-from cake launch of 2020, indicating that consumers shopping in the free-from category are enticed by dairy-free formats and innovative, delicious flavour options. Demand for gluten-free products that taste as good if not better than the mainstream alternatives remains high.”
Marriage agrees the pandemic has boosted interest in the sector and says this shows no sign of waning. “The lockdowns of last year prompted a new-found love for home baking across the nation … this has continued into 2021. The gluten-free market continues to be buoyant and, according to Kantar, the take-home market for products making gluten-free claims is worth more than £2.32 billion, with growth hitting 20.7% during last year (vs. 14.1% for the total grocery market).”
Langlands notes that free-from options have evolved by addressing core needs and occasions. “Christmas ranges have really expanded over the last few years and the Easter 2021 ranges are a massive step forward in terms of breadth of range. Whilst free-from Easter Eggs have been around for many years, we have never before seen such variety with own-label and branded options catering for both kids and adults, ensuring Easter can be a truly inclusive event.”
In recognition of this rise in festive free-from, the FFFAs will be launching new ‘mini’ FreeFrom Christmas Awards in 2021, offering a standalone series of categories pertaining only to seasonally-relevant products.
As for future growth, Langlands believes the significant rise in free-from chilled products will continue, as well as non-dairy milk and cheese. “Dairy alternatives are constantly changing and growing. The availability and choice of artisan cheese alternatives has mushroomed, so although they’re still selling direct to consumer it probably won’t be long before they reach retailer shelves to sit alongside Brie, Gorgonzola and other speciality cheese.”
And with ‘tea time – so recently the preserve of gluten-free brownies’, now filled with a plethora of allergy-friendly treats and NPD in breakfast pastries such as croissants and pain aux raisins also increasing, she envisions high quality multiple-allergen-free products in this area too.
Noting that brands are ‘waking up and taking notice of inclusivity’, Langlands says: “Free-from has moved from functional, almost medical, to connecting emotionally and shifting even further to inclusivity – food to share with anyone regardless of need, and this is expected to be a key driver of future growth. In the retail offer, artisan is growing, chilled foods have taken leaps and bounds.
“I’m hoping that the same thing happens with free-from that happened with veganism and it becomes something that is cool,” says Langlands. “It’s difficult because it’s a medical need, not a lifestyle choice, but there are a lot of young bloggers out there who are being vocal and really talking about it. I think there’s going to be a mushrooming of awareness, information and real understanding.”
But she does urge caution about the vegan/free-from category crossover: “There is a huge move towards vegan and plant-based foods – however having vegan certification does not automatically mean a product is egg-, dairy- or fish-free, and many people aren’t aware of traces of these allergens being present in vegan foods. There needs to be much stricter interpretations. There is a need to drive this category to focus on removing trace allergens from vegan foods, so they can be enjoyed more broadly by allergy reactors.”
Free from Friesian
Plant-based chocolate is creeping into the mainstream (Mars offers vegan milk chocolate under its Galaxy brand), but it’s the smaller producers leading innovation in this sector. With over a fifth of the UK population avoiding milk, this is a category to watch. Recent additions include:
• Start-up free-from snack brand CRAVE created rice milk chocolate bars made with sustainably sourced cocoa, and free from gluten, milk, lactose and egg. They can be enjoyed by those with intolerances but were designed to simply ‘taste delicious’.
• Oat milk chocolate startup HiP aimed to ‘storm the confectionery market’ with products to deliver on taste and style, with flavours including Smooth & Creamy and Salted
Caramel. The chocolate comes in plastic-free packaging with contemporary designs aimed at younger consumers.
• To create a fun, approachable oat milk chocolate that’s reasonably priced and delicious, Happi launched bars and buttons using sunflower instead of soya lecithin to ensure they are ‘completely allergen-free’.
Alara Gluten Free range
As you may know, Alara became the first company to be licensed by the Coeliac Society in 1996 to produce free from gluten cereals and we count now on nine different GF cereal recipes. But gluten is not the only ingredient our cereals are free from as all our range is free from added sugar or salt, perfect for those following a healthy diet, and also free from dairy, make them vegetarian and vegan friendly. Offering a whole range of cereals good for both your body and your planet has always been our main goal.
Clearspring’s Organic Free From range
Clearspring has developed an extensive range of premium quality organic gluten free products. This includes Clearspring’s flagship organic Japanese range with products such as authentic silken Tofu, Yaemon Tamari Soya Sauce, Noodles and Japanese Rice Crackers. This sits alongside its everyday staples range which features gluten free Pastas, Pasta Sauces, Peanut Butters and their recently relaunched Organic Brown Rice Cakes range. Added to Clearspring’s credentials is the fact that their entire range is plant-based, dairy free, non-GMO, free from added sugar and free from artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. This has helped Clearspring win a loyal and growing fan-base of free-from shoppers.
How clean are the supplements on your shelves?
The Vegan and Vegetarian Society *approved, Halal and Kosher certified range of premium vitamins, minerals and herbs from the Natural Health Practice have all been formulated in association with Dr Marilyn Glenville PHD, the UK’s leading nutritionist specialising in women’s health. With the emphasis always being on the use of quality, clean and natural ingredients, the NHP range is hypoallergenic – free from sugar, gluten, starch, wheat, yeast, soya and dairy products. GMO free and made without the use of artificial flavours, colours or preservatives. The range contains no fillers, binders, anti-caking agents or artificial sweeteners. *. Excludes Omega 3 Support.
Naturally Pure & Delicious Raw Organic Chocolate
Tree of Life Raw Organic Chocolate contains just three plant-based ingredients: raw cacao powder, cacao butter and coconut blossom sugar. Our chocolate is certified organic, reassuringly free from dairy, gluten and refined sugars, but most of all it tastes simply delicious! The finest raw, unroasted, sustainably grown, cacao beans give our chocolate a smooth, intense chocolate flavour with no bitterness, whilst we hand-finish our bars with tantalising fruits, nuts and spices for the ultimate chocolate experience. What’s more the packaging is fully compostable and recyclable too. Available in 6 tempting varieties including Pure 74%, Raspberry, Coconut and Chai Spice.
Deliciously Dairy-free, Great Value Oat Drinks
Tree of Life Oat Drinks are smooth, creamy, dairy-free drinks packed with the goodness of wholegrain oats, only natural sugars, and are ideal for a plant-based lifestyle. Our drinks contain a higher than average percentage of oats, whilst our natural extraction process ensures the beneficial soluble fibres (beta-glucans) are retained. Available in 3 delicious varieties: our Barista Drink is perfectly crafted for coffee creations; our Enriched Drink contains extra good stuff with added calcium & vitamins D, B2 & B12, and our Organic Drink is certified by the Soil Association for our health and that of the planet.
Profusion Organic Protein Burger Mix
Addressing growing demand for functional food, Profusion’s Organic Protein Burger Mix is made with only natural, high-protein ingredients, containing 19g of plant-based protein per 100g. The Moroccan Style speed mix is 100% vegan, and free of gluten, soy and nuts.
Designed for ease-seeking cooks, all you need to do is add water and pan fry. The lively Ras El Hanout spice mix adds a boost of flavour, for a delicious and healthy pre-or post-workout meal.