Free-from: the health trend which is shaking up the global market (and why)

As consumers turn increasingly away from gluten, lactose, sugar and other ingredients, which alternative products will rise to fill the gap?

Chances are, if you’re in the health food sector (or even just remotely paying attention to health-related news), you’ve heard all sorts of myths and theories about the dangers of eating gluten, or sugar, or meat, or any number of other common ingredients – theories which are feeding a growing trend across Europe and beyond: the free-from sector.

What used to be a product range reserved for a small section of consumers with specific dietary requirements due to allergies or intolerances is now fast becoming a market which caters not only to those who need to avoid gluten and lactose, but those who want to avoid it as part of a healthy diet. Furthermore, new categories such as ‘free from sugar’ or ‘nut free’ or even more recently ‘grain-free’, are raising questions about whether we need a new term for such diets – or whether these sectors have the same consumer space as traditional free-from foods. What is not up for question, however, is that this is a huge market not only in the UK, where it is currently worth £531m, but also in other countries where an increased number of diagnoses of food intolerances and higher migration levels are leading to increased demand for products, and generally lower prices.

Product innovation

Success can depend on how brands and retailers react to this demand. Between 2011 and 2016, Spain saw a 76% current value growth in free from products – an increase which is not only down to a greater awareness of intolerances, but is also attributed to the level of innovation in the industry as brands offer a greater variety of products, which may be especially popular among sectors such as added value products like lactose-free flavoured yoghurts. It is also down to a greater availability: 70% of free-from products in Spain are currently bought from supermarkets or other large retailers as opposed to specialised stores.

Decisions, decisions…

Another factor to consider is what consumers choose instead of traditional products – some avoid gluten by avoiding all grains, an attitude common among those following the Paleo diet, which others opt for special gluten-free products such as bread, although these can be more expensive or less healthy in their quantities of other nutrients. In the lactose-free market, alternatives can be split into lactose-free dairy, or dairy alternatives such as nut milks. In Spain, Free from lactose recorded the fastest current value growth in 2016 of 31%, while in Finland, for example, dairy-free alternatives are surpassing those of dairy-based lactose-free products.

A forecast for the future of free-from?

As if these opposing trends aren’t surprising enough, the issue is further complicated by factors which may impact upon the future of this market. Continually contrasting expert opinions and health advice may lead to further shifts: soya, the biggest alternative to dairy in the UK, is currently grappling with concerns over phytoestrogens; some ecologists debate the effect of coconut consumption on the environment; and some experts argue that gluten is not the problem but FODMAPs, another category of food which could enter into the mainstream of free-from foods in the future. Meanwhile, more and more people turn to a ‘flexitarian’ lifestyle, leading to a potential increase in meat substitutes, while others seek to cut down on processed sugar in another growing food trend. Add to this a lack of current clear standards for this category in the EU…. and you end up with a very uncertain and varied sector.

What is certain is that all of this makes for a very quickly changing and exciting market for health food businesses, with lots of potential for free-from manufacturers to target a growing consumer base both at home and abroad.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how these trends can work for you and how to help your product gain a customer base in the foreign market, please get in touch with Bolst Global and we’ll be happy to help you using our exporting experience and in-depth understanding of these issues.

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