Free Thinking – Why The Free-From Sector Is Big Business

By Steve Wynne-Jones
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Free Thinking – Why The Free-From Sector Is Big Business

The Free-From and Functional Foods segments have seen impressive growth in recent years, but, as they gain maturity, retailers and brands operating therein will need to place increased focus on added-value elements. ESM reports. This article first appeared in ESM Issue 2 2020.

Encompassing a broad range of categories, such as gluten-free, lactose-free, vegetarian, vegan, and many other specialist areas, the free-from market has enjoyed exponential growth over the past few years – an upward trajectory that looks set to continue.

In fact, the global gluten-free market alone could be worth as much as €40 billion by 2027, a recent report by Grand View Research found – driven not just by those with a particular dietary intolerance, but also due to consumer awareness about healthy living and the perceived benefits of cutting gluten from the everyday diet.

It’s this ‘beyond intolerance’ thinking that has been one of the core driving factors of the free-from market as a whole. The ‘flexitarian’ trend has boosted vegan and vegetarian sales, for example, just as growing environmental concerns have similarly proved a fillip for the dairy-free and plant-based categories.

As consumers strive to eat more healthily, and more sustainably, the free-from segment has been a major beneficiary of this trend.


Innovation Pipeline

In order for the segment to retain long-term growth, those operating therein need to ensure a steady pipeline of innovation. As a recent study found, much of the growth in free-from – as much as 60% – is from ‘lifestylers’, or casual users, rather than those with specific dietary needs.

“There are many factors currently influencing the free from market,” says Ronald Holman, exhibition director for the Free From Functional & Health Ingredients Expo, taking place in Amsterdam in November.

“Allergens are just one of consumers’ many concerns when it comes to food and drink. According to Mintel data from Ireland and Northern Ireland, allergens rank below sugar, fat, additives, calories and artificial sweeteners as a concern.”

As Holman points out, it’s also worth remembering that the impetus driving consumer dietary decisions varies from category to category and from country to country –reducing meat intake, for example, is often a lifestyle choice due to health, ethical or environmental reasons.


“Mintel’s research indicates that in Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland, consumers are seeking dairy-free primarily in response to an allergy or intolerance – although this can often be self-diagnosed!” he adds.

As the market develops, manufacturers are increasingly promoting environmental and health benefits to encourage consumers to try free-from foods.

“One aspect that has really come to the fore is consumer demand for full disclosure about processing techniques,” says Holman. “For example, there’s a move towards using fewer ingredients that are perceived to be more naturally treated.

“The businesses that are successful are those whose messaging is perfectly pitched in terms of creating a strong product offering supported by a clear brand narrative, as well as full transparency about their supply chain and validation about any specific health claims.”


Functional Foods

A similar trend can be observed in the functional foods segment. As research firm FMCG Gurus puts it, consumer demand for functional food and drink products that offer a health boost beyond basic nutrition is strongest in the breakfast and better-for-you categories, with growing numbers of consumers conscious of physical and cognitive health issues.

FMCG Gurus conducted research across 25 countries in Q3 2018 and Q2 2019 and found that 39% of global consumers say that they are not satisfied with their heart health, 44% with their cognitive health, and 45% with their digestive health.

This dissatisfaction is linked to consumers being unhappy with their current diets and lifestyles, as well as a number of related factors.

At the same time, consumers are embracing the concepts of healthy ageing and holistic health, and adopting a long-term approach to health management. Hence, they are making changes to their eating and drinking habits in order to improve their physical and mental well-being, even if they are not suffering from specific health problems.


For instance, a total of 62% of consumers say that they are interested in food and drink products that address heart health, even if they are not suffering from such problems. Additionally, a total of 61% answered likewise in terms of digestive health, and 58% in relation to products that aid cognitive health.

Product Support

As part of its study, FMCG Gurus also asked consumers to identify the categories in which they would like to see functional food and drink products positioned around aiding physical and cognitive health. The research shows that, when it comes to products that aid heart health, breakfast cereal (37%) was the preferred format – something that was also the case for digestive health (35%). For cognitive heath, dairy products such as yoghurt (22%) form the category in which consumers most want to see related product development.

‘Firstly, consumers want functional products when it comes to morning consumption occasions; a time of the day when consumers tend to be more health-orientated before they become more indulgence-orientated as the day progresses,’ FMCG Gurus wrote in its study.

‘Secondly, consumers want functional products in better-for-you categories such as yogurt, which are not only associated with taste and nutrition but also ingredients such as protein and calcium.’

Meat Alternatives

If there is one free-from category that’s caught the imagination of Europe’s retailers, it’s the meat alternatives market, with a raft of new product innovation taking place in the past few months.

In Germany, for example, Netto Marken-Discount unveiled the Vegetar!a range, offering vegan minced meat and vegan burger patties made from wheat and soy proteins, while Lidl has rolled out what it describes as the Next-Level Burger, devised from wheat, soy proteins, mushrooms and peas.

In France, Groupe Casino recently signed an agreement with Beyond Meat, which saw the plant-based producer’s products go on sale at Monoprix, Franprix, Géant and Casino Supermarchés; Casino is the first retailer in France to offer Beyond Meat’s range of products.

“Whether for reasons of lifestyle, taste, [or] environmental or animal welfare concerns, more and more French consumers are directing their diet towards plant-based proteins,” Corinne Aubry-Lecomte, Casino’s industrial, innovation and quality director, said of the partnership.

In the UK, few meat alternative ranges have garnered as much attention as Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen, styled as ‘vegan food for meat eaters’, and developed by the retailer in conjunction with pioneering chef Derek Sarno. As he tells ESM, he believes the demand for quality meat-free products has been evident in the market for some time, and it was only a matter of time before the category went stratospheric.

“There was always a latent, pent up demand for animal free options,” he says. “I honestly don’t understand why it hasn’t been exposed sooner. Wicked focuses on flavour, taste, vibrant fresh colours and  the ‘cool’ factor. There’s no compromise – just great tasting, compassionate food. That is the future!”

Wicked Kitchen was borne out of the Wicked Healthy business that Sarno, the former senior global chef at Whole Foods Market, started in 2016, with the mission to be of ‘benefit to people, the planet and animals’. The aim of the brand is to inspire people to take control of their health, through convenient meal options that are both tasty and easy to prepare.

“People want choice and plant based is at the forefront,” says Sarno, a passionate vegan. “We understand that people and societies have been milking, killing and eating animals for a very long time now. That doesn’t make it right! It’s not healthy for us or the planet.

“The Wicked way of cooking leads with taste. We create food, free from all animal products, which is appealing and delicious. Habits are hard to break, so the easier we make it, the faster the change, and the more we can all benefit.”

And as for the plant-based ingredients Sarno believes will gain traction with consumers in the years to come? “I’m putting my heart and soul into mushrooms,” he says. “The meaty textures and tastes are amazing, and the health and immune-boosting qualities are just starting to come into the limelight.

“We already do so much work with mushrooms – I’m not talking about button mushrooms or chestnuts; we’re driving the slightly more exotic types like king oysters and brown oyster clusters. The things we can do with them are simply amazing.”

The Free From Functional & Health Ingredients Expo 2020 takes place on 24 and 25 November at RAI Amsterdam. For more information, visit

2020 European Supermarket Magazine – your source for the latest retail news. Article by Stephen Wynne-Jones. Click subscribe to sign up to ESM: European Supermarket Magazine.

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