The free-from food sector is booming in the UK. More and more consumers are including free-from products (foods which have been manufactured in such a way as to ensure that certain allergens are not present, and which are advertised as such) in their shopping baskets. I'm one of them - after my young son suffered an anaphylactic shock from eating wheat (from which he thankfully fully recovered), mine became a completely wheat and gluten free household in 2017.

Whilst it has its challenges, it has become much easier in recent years to follow a gluten free (or nut free, or dairy free etc.) diet due to the quality and quantity of free-from products on offer. Market intelligence agency Mintel estimates that the UK free-from market was worth £837 million in 2018, having more than doubled in size during the preceding 5 years.

Where is this growth coming from?

It's not just those with coeliac disease, allergies or intolerances who are driving this growth. Consumers buying these products do so for a multitude of reasons, including:

  • actual or perceived health benefits in avoiding certain foods or food categories, such as dairy products or soya, even for those without a medically-diagnosed condition. As many as one in 10 people are now reportedly shunning gluten, including the tennis player Novak Djokovic;
  • environmental and animal welfare concerns;
  • the increased popularity of veganism and the "clean eating" movement.

What is the "health halo" in the free-from market? Is it necessarily a good thing?

The growth in this sector sounds like good news all round, but as the market grows, consumers are becoming more discerning, and potentially more fickle. If consumers start to perceive free-from products as being, for example, highly processed, or otherwise less healthy than they previously believed, research suggests that a portion of the market will start to abandon those products. The same research by Mintel noted:

"The health halo of free-from foods is a key driver of uptake and has resulted in a much larger group of users than the limited number of actual or suspected allergy or intolerance sufferers. However, this leaves the free-from category exposed to changes in consumer opinion and media coverage."

Analysts are therefore recommending that brands continue to innovate in order to maintain and increase their market share, for example by altering recipes and manufacturing techniques to reduce sugar content. This could lead to further challenges for the sector; reducing sugar can negatively impact the shelf life of certain products, and more expensive processes can lead to increased costs for products which already generally retail at a much higher price point than the 'standard' versions. Rising to these challenges will be key to retaining market share.

Legal considerations

It would be remiss not to mention the ever-present risk for companies across the whole supply chain of free-from foods: that someone will become seriously ill or, in the most tragic cases, die as a result of eating a food which contains an allergen which is not declared on the packaging, whether as a result of incorrect labelling or accidental contamination.

As my colleague Grant Strachan wrote in his recent legal update, food allergen labelling is highly regulated, and following a recent government consultation Ministers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been advised that full ingredient labelling should be mandatory even for foods which are "prepacked for direct sale", such as sandwiches made at a sandwich shop, packaged and then sold on site that day. He noted that this will present a significant practical and compliance burden to industry, but the hope is that improved labelling will improve consumer trust, leading to increased sales, as well as limiting the risk of harm to both consumers and brands in the event of a serious error.

The theme of Brodies Food & Drink Conference 2019 is New Markets: New Opportunities. The conference will provide an engaging forum to discuss exciting new opportunities and growth areas for the sector. For more information and to register your place please click here.


Fiona Chute

Senior Associate