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Free-from food market soars due to self-diagnosis

By Dan Colombini, 23-Feb-2012

Related topics: Business News

Self-diagnosis of food intolerance using online tools has led to soaring sales in the UK free-from food market, valued at an estimated £300M last year.

Analysts said that more UK consumers were turning to free-from products after self-diagnosing intolerance to certain foods and discussing their problems on internet chat rooms and forums. This would further increase the value of the market, which had already risen 9% since 2010, experts revealed.

Laura Kempster, market analyst at Leatherhead Food Research, told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “Self-diagnosis is happening more and more. Growth in the sector is largely owing to the fact that consumers are turning to free-from products after deciding that they may be intolerant to a certain ingredient, such as wheat.

“Availability of these products is now allowing people to do this more and more. Another reason is the rise of chat rooms and forums, where people can discuss their issues.”

Manufacturers and retailers

Kiti Soininen, food analyst at research firm Mintel, told FoodManufacture.co.uk that the sector was likely to grow further this year, despite many consumers feeling the pinch from the tough economic climate. But she warned that much depended on the behaviour of manufacturers and retailers.

I would have thought the market will continue to grow,” she added.

It has been a very volatile performance and, as it’s a small sector, it can boast larger percentage growth than bigger markets.

“The market showed a very strong performance a few years ago when the UK economy was also struggling. But a lot depends on the brands committing to the market. If the products are not there, people can’t by them.”

Greater access

Soininen said that many supermarkets and food firms had “massively expanded” their ranges over the past few years. This also allowed greater access to the products for consumers.

She said: “Firm’s like Genius and Warburton’s, with their gluten-free bread, have expanded their ranges. It’s become so much easier to access through a wider range of products and their availability.

“Lactose free goods are now available in most shops and this considerably lowers the barrier in the market.

Coeliac UK, the leading charity working for people with the gluten intolerance illness Coeliac disease, warned that self-diagnosis could lead to people concluding incorrectly that they suffered from the condition. It could also obscure the true extent of the disease.

The organisation also claimed that many genuine sufferers, who were forced to turn to free-from products, had played a role in the sectors growth.

A spokeswoman told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “I wouldn’t say that self-diagnosis is solely responsible for the growth. Currently 1% of the population suffers from Coeliac disease but we are getting about 1,200 members a month. But we estimate that there are still 0.5M people in the UK that are undiagnosed.

“The problem is people cannot be diagnosed if they optionally cut gluten from their diet. You cannot be tested for the disease if you haven’t been eating gluten products. There is no NHS register to say who is suffering from the disease, so if people think they are, it is important to be tested.

Latest figures from Mintel showed that that 15% of 1,500 surveyed consumers confirmed that someone in their household avoided certain foods in favour of free-from products “to be on the safe side”.

A further 17% said a family member refused to eat certain foods, in a bid to lead a healthier lifestyle.

Soininen said: “There is certainly a strong element of self-diagnosis in the growth. These are pretty big percentages when you consider that only 11% were limited to certain foods as they were officially intolerant. So self-diagnosis is a major factor.

“If the market only came down to people that had been diagnosed, it would certainly be a lot smaller.

Latest figures from Leatherhead also showed that gluten-free sales had risen by 60% since 2006, with an annual average growth rate of 12%.