You could be forgiven for thinking that the market for 'free from' foods is minimal - just 2.5% of the UK's population suffer from food allergies.
However, food intolerance is another matter. There is no hard data on how many people are affected by food intolerance, but it is likely to be several million in the UK alone and some estimates suggest it is as high as 45% of the population, according to the charity Allergy UK.
Although 'free from' food manufacturers are battling hard to get their products on to shelves, it seems many are facing a wall of resistance from retailers.
"What's happened traditionally with 'free from' is that most NPD [new product development] has been focused on ambient areas, such as bread and cakes, because retailers have felt that if they're going to take a chance with something non-mainstream it's safer with a product that has a longer shelf-life," explains Erica Sheward, technical manager at 'free from' ready meals producer Castle Kitchens.
"I'm not aware of any other chilled manufacturers making dishes specifically for the 'free from' sector because it is difficult to convince retailers to list them. They will all tell you that 'free from' ambient growth is prolific and sustained, but listing chilled foods is a big leap of faith."
Lena Symonds, senior development manager of the Free to Enjoy range at Kallo Foods notes that 'free from' foods don't exactly fly off the shelf compared to mainstream ranges. "If you compare mainstream products to the allergen fixture, it's just a case of adding another zero to the volume."
But part of the reason for this could be that consumers can't find what they are looking for and don't know that certain 'free from' products are available - a fact flagged up by Sheward. "People with allergies generally prepare their own food, so they don't know that 'free from' ready meals exist," she says. "I think the market is absolutely enormous, but, certainly in chilled, there isn't enough product availability. Also, retailers don't know where to put such products - in the healthy eating aisle, or with similar mainstream products where our consumers will say they can't find them." She claims that it would be ideal to have a chilled display cabinet on the ambient aisle dedicated to 'free from' products.
A convincing case?
Castle Kitchens has just developed a range of chilled wheat, gluten and dairy-free sponge puddings, but so far they have been met with a frosty reception from retailers. "A couple of retailers have already got back and told us they have no strategy for 'free from' desserts," says Sheward. "I would understand if they were stocking nothing, but having 'free from' ice cream and custard and nothing to go with them is insane, especially when we've created products because of the demand."
And it's not just chilled products that are having difficulties getting listings. The Intolerable Food Company has also been battling to get its frozen ready meals on to the shelves of the big four. "The story I've been told by retailers is that they only have limited freezer space and 'free from' foods aren't the top of their list at the moment," says company owner Sue Widdicombe.
Consumers are also proving tricky to win over. "When we did our first consumer groups we trialled our food on mixed consumers - some allergy sufferers and some not - and we had tremendous feedback. But there's an initial perception that 'free from' won't taste as good as standard products," says Sheward.
G-free manager Paula Deacon, who deals in gluten-free bakery products, has had similar experiences. 'It's a bit of a shame that when you call something 'free from' people think that something is missing - it's quite hard to get over that," she says.
Premium prices are another hurdle to overcome. "'Free from' products are a lot more expensive than standard ones and we have to pass some costs on to the consumer, but we don't make margins that are as high as other bakers," says Deacon. "If consumers prepare foods themselves, then they can work out the expenses, so they understand why it isn't cheap."
Sheward adds: "It's very hard not to discriminate against 'free from' consumers because their food is intrinsically expensive to make. The likelihood is you're not going to make these foods in the same volume as mainstream products as demand isn't high. Then there's the technical and testing work - it's an expensive old game."
She claims that 'free from' foods are "incredibly difficult" to develop. "With standard NPD you make a product and label it. With us, you start with everything you can't use and see what's left!" she says.
The NPD process is also very time-consuming. "Everything is cooked from scratch, so that I know exactly what goes into it," says Widdicombe. She won't risk using processed foods in her meals because many contain hidden allergens. "Milk powder gets into a lot of processed products that you might not expect to find it in, such as margarine, and wheat flour also gets hidden."
Getting the right product consistency is also a challenge. "You can never use just one flour," says Deacon. "You always have to mix them as they all have different functions. I use rice flour, potato starch and gran [chickpea] flour to make pastry."
However, Deacon is convinced that her products are worth the effort. "We're hoping that what we do will become mainstream. A lot of people prefer our pastry to wheat-based alternatives and with wheat prices going up, it may become a more appealing option."
Mintel trends and innovation consultant Carla Ogeia doesn't believe that 'free from' foods will ever be favoured over their standard counterparts, but she has faith that the sector will grow. "'Free from' products won't become a mainstream, but they will have a larger space in retailers in the future," she says. "Sometimes allergies are seen as a bit trendy, so some people self-diagnose themselves. This is almost a good thing for true sufferers because it has opened up the category."
So 'free from' has the potential to grow, but will the category ever see any true innovation, or will it always be a case of emulating popular mainstream dishes?
"When it comes to coeliac disease, a lot of people are diagnosed later in life, so they're demanding traditional dishes," says Widdicombe. "They want the foods that they used to eat every day."
Sheward is also wary of introducing anything too weird and wonderful. "If you introduce something completely new, then there's nothing to persuade the retailer that it will sell," she claims. "If you ask 'free from' consumers what they'd like to eat and create products on that basis, then it becomes a tangible prospect for retailers. Your average consumer wouldn't necessarily want something off the wall."
Symonds found this out the hard way when Free to Enjoy launched its first offerings. "When we decided to enter this fixture we wanted to try something innovative, premium and completely new," she explains. "We launched a range of chocolate and yoghurt clusters in little tubs and wafer thin biscuits covered in chocolate and almonds, but the market wasn't ready for them and they were delisted.
"We had to revisit our strategy and focus on copying mainstream bestsellers," she says. "The race is still on to match mainstream products and until it's done, then I can't see that there will be any real innovation in 'free from' ranges."
So there may not be room in the 'free from' sector for any wacky creations just yet, but awareness is certainly increasing that there is a need for these products. "People now seem to realise that allergies are a medical condition, rather than just another faddy diet," says Widdicombe. "I think the market will get bigger and bigger as soon as some of the major retailers start to think differently." FM