Retail free-from sales are forecast to have grown by 13% by the end of 2016, making it a market worth £531m that supports the one in six British consumers actively avoiding wheat and gluten.

Lisa West, chief executive of seafood brand Ocean Crown, says: “Food wholesalers can no longer afford to ignore a market which has grown ten times above the rate of the grocery market as a whole.

“As product options expand beyond the traditional sectors of cereals, bread and dairy, free-from has grown at such a pace that many wholesale, foodservice and retail businesses have struggled to keep up. This creates a massive opportunity for businesses switched on and educated about the potential of this growing market. The gap will now widen between those willing to embrace the potential of free-from, and those seeing allergen awareness as an irritating fallout of the latest legislation.”

She adds: “Wholesalers and retailers often overlook that customers need reassurance of safety in the less obvious food product categories too, such as protein-based products, ready meals, children’s lines, and food on the go. The supply chain has a part to play here, ensuring the free-from USPs of products are clearly promoted in all food categories not only those based on dairy or wheat.”

Coeliac UK predicts that the catering industry is missing out on an estimated £100m a year by not catering to people with coeliac disease, and the friends and family they eat with.

Catherine Rigg, senior product manager at McCain Foods, says: “There is a significant opportunity for caterers who can build a reputation for offering great tasting gluten-free menus, particularly favourites such as chips. It’s also worth remembering that the people seeking gluten-free options will rarely be dining alone, so there is an impact on the friends or family that they eat out with too.”

Rice brand Tilda says that it has worked to demystify wholegrain rice and educate consumers on the versatility and ease of cooking naturally gluten-free and low glycemic index (GI) wholegrain; mostly through last year’s Eat Your Way to Happiness campaign and 2016’s Be At Your Best good-energy initiative.

Anna Beheshti, Tilda’s head of mainstream marketing, says: “Foods carrying free-from labelling no longer solely appeal to consumers with allergies and intolerances; the perceived health benefits for both the individual and environment are driving shopper appeal in this sector.

“For a generation influenced by healthy eating trends, celebrity and scientifically-proven dietary guidance, going gluten-free, dairy-free and rejecting foods with artificial colours and preservatives, are all triggers for re-evaluating diet choices.”

With more consumers choosing to follow a free-from diet as a lifestyle choice, as opposed to a medical requirement, there is no doubt that gluten-free products are becoming increasingly important, and can even be considered must-stock items.

Sarah Brown, senior brand manager at Calbee UK, says: “We have noticed that free-from fixtures work well. As these areas are often well signposted with strong point of sale and marketing support, people are directed to the shelves and can make quick and informed choices about the snacks that they purchase.

“It is worth noting, however, that as free-from becomes more mass market, it may also become increasingly difficult to have dedicated fixtures as there is likely to be an increase in the variety of products that are available as these diets become mainstream.”

Frankie Fox, co-founder of The Foraging Fox, notes that for those consumers suffering from serious allergies, the chance to feel like they can enjoy a “normal eating experience is really special”. With this in mind, Calbee’s Brown implores wholesalers to get on board with the trend as soon as possible: “We know that there is a demand for free-from and ‘better for you’ products, and that it will continue to rise, therefore it is essential that wholesalers and their retail customers ensure that they cater for this trend by stocking products that are great tasting, and meet the free-from and better for you criterion,” she says.

With no evidence that the trend towards free-from is likely to fade any time soon, wholesalers – working with their retail and foodservice customers – can benefit from a good understanding of the shift towards products that can make these claims.


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