At last month’s Food and Drink Innovation Network conference on free-from, Mintel analyst Chris Brockman said the market was forecast to grow by 46% to £561M by 2017 – largely on the back of the soaring popularity of the health and wellness trend, not because shoppers have a specific allergy.
However, Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, long-time campaigner for better free-from foods and founder of the Foods Matter website, said several factors were holding the sector back, despite its success and “move into the mainstream”.
Top of her list of gripes was the fact that allergen thresholds were still “bedevilling” free-from foods. While an agreed allergen threshold is in place for gluten, she told delegates at the event that they were also desperately needed for dairy, and ideally for nuts and soya.
Labelling was also a problem for free-from shoppers, that would only worsen with the introduction of EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIR) next year, which will abolish the use of allergy warning boxes in favour of listing allergens in the ingredient list – albeit in a different colour or font.
“This will hold us back,” she said. “These regulations will make it worse for consumers who need clarity so they can easily see if a product is safe.”
Price was also a stumbling block, added Berriedale-Johnson, who said consumers would tolerate a 10–15% mark-up, but not some of the “ridiculous and unsustainable” prices witnessed at present.
This view was shared by another speaker, Claire Nuttall, from market research group Watch Me Think, who said a free-from shopping basket cost 35% more than its conventional equivalent.
‘Very big challenge’
“There is a very big challenge here, but the quality and cost of free-from ingredients is higher. This is not something that will be sorted out overnight,” warned Nuttall.
Berriedale-Johnson and Nuttall also agreed poor distribution was a problem, especially when it came to the food-to-go sector.
Berriedale-Johnson called on supermarkets to stock products alongside conventional items, to stop free-from being “ghettoised.”