The cost of freefrom food – Catherine Rose investigates why it costs so much more than non freefrom.
Catherine runs her own gluten-free cake company, Sweetcheeks, and her own café, The Printworks Kitchen and, each year, she works with us for the five weeks of judging for the FreeFrom Food Awards. Here she is working on the entries last year.
If you are a member of any free-from group on social media, there is one bug bear that never fails to be mentioned, and commented on, and commented on, and commented on, and on, and on…….Why do free from products cost so much????
Though I require a gluten free diet and I try to avoid substitutes by eating more things that are naturally free-from, sometimes I just can't avoid those free-from blueberry muffins (£2.50 for 2 in case you were wondering, whereas the regular ones are 4 for £1) and yes, I feel the pinch too.
But as someone who works in the food industry and understands the manufacturing methods required I wanted to stand up for manufacturers and explain to the consumer why products do cost more, why this is a good thing and whether this will ever change.
Why do free-from products cost so much more than the regular versions?
At every step along the chain from field to packet, checks need to be in place to avoid cross contamination and ensure the free-from product is safe for you to consume. That means, separate fields to grow the gluten free grain (for example), separate combine harvesters, separate factory equipment, separate trucks, separate packing facilities, and separate transport.
Taking a closer look at the manufacturing facility, this would have to be a separate facility in which to produce the free-from product which costs a significant amount to build from new. There are currently only a handful of dedicated manufacturing sites in the UK solely for free-food so demand to produce on those lines is high. Because of this, manufacturers often use the production lines they already have but ensure a deep clean before a free-from product is made. This requires extra manpower and lots of time when lines are down and not making money; somehow this has to be paid for.
If a free-from company needs to hire the space in an existing factory that works with a range of different suppliers, this throws up issues of it’s own too. Once the company finds the factory they want to produce their products for them, they’d need to ensure that the factory can fit their production time on an existing line or put in a new one if the volume is high enough to warrant it. The latter option can cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds if it is very bespoke packaging/mixing of ingredients required. And this is all assuming that the factory they find will take on the company! They may not like the products or have a conflict of interest. Or later on down the line the quality of the products may not be good enough to continue using the factory, and so the process starts again.
Free-from products must also all be tested to the nth degree. To claim 'gluten free' on packaging for example, the product must be lab tested to be less than 20 parts per million of gluten. And that's not just one batch, but every single batch. And not just the finished product...... each of the ingredients too. That works out as extremely costly. I don’t know about you, but I’ll pay that bit extra to ensure the food I’m eating is safe for me.
Bear in mind this is just when you look at the big manufacturers who produce on a large scale. Many many free-from companies are small manufacturers who bake from home or on a small scale in a shared commercial kitchen. When we look at these manufacturers there are other aspects to consider.
I run Sweetcheeks cake company. We do not produce on a large scale. I bake from my kitchen at my cafe Printworks Kitchen and make all cakes to order by hand. Baking by hand is also a slow process so my labour costs are higher than if I were baking 200, or 2,000 cakes per hour in a factory. Not only are labour costs higher for baking the cakes, but as a one woman show, I have to do the marketing, finances, legislation and stock management myself. The juice has to be worth the squeeze, as they say, to make businesses like mine viable.
And more... The ingredients that need to be tested to ensure their free-from credentials, can only be bought in small quantities by smaller manufacturers. This is to ensure nothing expires before we get a chance to use it and that we have space to store it in our small kitchens. Buying in smaller quantities also aids cash flow as there are no big budgets to lay out for hundreds of pounds of ingredients at one time – but buying you can make no economies of scale.
In summary, there is a myriad of reasons why free-from products cost more than their “regular” counterparts for both small and large manufacturers. So, next time you feel the need to moan about the cost, ask yourself whether you'd rather have a safe, good quality product than one botched together and risky for your health.
If demand for free-from products continues to increase, the cost will go down as more factories and production lines will be specifically allocated to free-from products, ingredients will be more available cheaper and testing methods will become easier and quicker.
The other alternative, of course, is to just omit free-from replacement foods and eat naturally free-from food....