‘Free from’ food for allergy and intolerance – thoughts on a Mintel trend briefing

Early spring is the season for food and health shows. I attended the International Food Exhibition in mid March, partly to hear a presentation by Mintel – who always give good presentations, in my experience – partly to look around for new and innovative ‘free from’ foods, and partly to shovel samples of tasty grub into my face. Yes it is a tough life being a food journalist.

Although a show for all kinds of food, I was a little disappointed at the dearth of ‘free from’ food – or ‘allergy friendly’, if you prefer that term (I definitely do not). There were some familiar names – the well regarded and excellent Doves Farm, the nut-allergic’s great friend It’s Nuts Free, the fun guys from Natural Balance Foods offering their tasty wholesome Nakd fruit bars – but overall I found little that was new to me.

Sania Rice CousCous was one exception, although I did not get a chance to taste it. Still as a gluten free alternative to wheat cous cous, it looks promising and it would be great to see it in the UK.

It was also a pleasure to meet the nice chaps from the delicious Kara coconut milk. I like this product a lot – much nicer than the awful coconut water you can get out there – and it offers a really tasty milk alternative for vegans or dairy or soya allergics/intolerants. A winner through and through.

And I also stumbled across ‘No Nut Nutty Choc Spread’ which appeared to be a really good new product for the nut-allergic. It’s from Clark’s, but nothing on their website about it yet. One to keep your eyes on, if you have nut allergies.

The Mintel presentation on ‘free from’ foods, by Jane Barnett, Trends & Innovation Consultant, was worth the trip alone. By way of introduction, she told us that gluten-free, lactose-free and lactose-reduced products have seen significant growth in the last few years, and that around 11% of all new food products introduced in the UK are now labelled as “low/no allergen” – which, when you think about it, is quite extraordinary.

In 2002, retail value sales of ‘free from’ foods here was just over £50m. In 2010, it was £195m. In 2012, it is forecast to be £350m. Again, extraordinary.

When it comes to gluten free products, UK leads the way in Europe: 29% of new GF products released in Europe over the last 12 months were from the UK, with nearest ‘rivals’ Spain with 15%.

With regards to lactose-free products, Finland – with a large lactose-intolerant population – leads the way with 28% of new lactose-free foods launched in the last 12 months. Austria were second with 14%, Germany third with 12%... and UK seventh with 5%.

This growth, say Mintel, has been driven – and will continue to be driven – by increased awareness, media interest and celebrity endorsement, wider availability of ‘free from’, greater spending on advertising, and perceived ‘health’ benefits of ‘free from’.

This last category deserves special attention, as it basically refers to people without food sensitivities buying into food for people with food sensitivities, much in the same way as carnivores may buy specialist vegetarian foods.

When shoppers were surveyed on whether they buy ‘free from’ and, if so, why, the following was found:
* 5% buy ‘free from’ because they or a family member have food allergies
* 5% buy ‘free from’ because they or a family member have food intolerances
* 18% buy ‘free from’ as part of a general healthy lifestyle
* 72% do not buy ‘free from’

In other words, almost twice as many people buy ‘free from’ because they want to than because they need to.

Those with genuine and properly diagnosed sensitivities are often – and, arguably, fairly – frustrated at people who aren’t sensitive to foods either claiming to be so or somehow living the ‘free from’ lifestyle.

The argument usually put forward is that because these people don’t fully understand and grasp the difficulties and realities of living with a severe allergy or intolerance, they don’t faithfully represent the issues to the wider world and aren’t the best spokespeople for or ‘faces’ of the cause to the general public and businesses. Examples I’ve read or heard about include those who insist on gluten-free starters and mains at restaurants – then order profiteroles for dessert because ‘just a little as a treat is okay’.

And as for celebrities? Who isn’t sick of another E-lister claiming to have shed the pounds after giving up dairy or gluten – promoting the idea that it’s all about weight loss and faddy diets?

Yet, according to Mintel, it is these groups who are driving growth in the sector – and, in consequence, at least partly ensuring that those with genuine food sensitivities get wider choice and improved foods in the years to come.

Do you think, then, we should be thanking them not moaning about them?

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