Food and Drink Innovation Network FreeFrom seminar
Michelle Berriedale-Johnson – overview from the chair

It is really hard to grasp the scope of the changes that have occurred in FreeFrom over the last five years – since the first FreeFrom seminar that the Food and Drink Innovation Network (FDIN) ran in 2006. Scarcely a month goes by without another report projecting  stratospheric growth for the sector (the most recent being from Global Industry Analysts Inc who predict a global market of £17 billion by 2017) or predictions of doom from those who maintain that freefrom is just a fashion.

Well, I am going to nail my colours to the mast right here – I do not believe that it is just a fashion – this month’s diet fad which will be forgotten by Christmas. I believe the rise of freefrom indicates fairly seismic shift in our attitude to food and that over the next ten years freefrom will not only become mainstream but, in many sectors, could become THE mainstream.


However, with freefrom, as with any subject, I believe that it is much easier to assess where it is going if you understand where it came from so – first – a brief history lesson:

Freefrom was born with the new century but it very much grew out of the developments in medical and health awareness which took place in the 1990s.

  1. The increase in the number of children suffering from allergies (possibly connected to the dramatic ramping up of the vaccination programme the late 1980s) and reaching school age – thus forcing awareness of allergy on a much wider constituency than just their families.
  2. The concurrent founding of vocal and well organised support groups such as the Anaphylaxis Campaign and Allergy UK who were good publicists for their causes.
  3. An increased awareness of coeliac disease and the possibility that it was more common than had been suspected – again with a vocal support group, Coeliac UK, to publicise the cause.
  4. A recognition, especially in the popular press, that many people seemed to suffer from a low level of ill health which their doctors were unable to address and which might be related to what they ate.
  5. ‘Celeb’ adoption of ‘allergy’ – Victoria Beckham, Gwyneth Paltrow and co. all adopting gluten and or dairy/free diets may have caused a lot of huffing and puffing amongst health professionals but it lent the diets glamour and reduced their ‘weirdo’ connotations for the average ‘Hello’ reader.
  6. An official focus on some foods as the precursor to ill health – endless Department of Health and Food Standards Agency campaigns to reduce fat, salt and sugar consumption to lower the risk of heart attack and stroke focused attention on food as a possible cause of ill health.
  7. The growing epidemic of obesity. Allergy seemed a good fall-guy for growing levels of obesity and a number of books such as Antoinette Savill’s Lose Wheat Lose Weight gave credibility to the idea.
  8. The growth in organic, fair trade, local and craft food producers all focused  attention on the quality of food, how it was made and where it came from  – all feeding into a growing awareness of how it could also impact on one’s health.

FreeFrom in the 1990s

FreeFrom foods did exist in the 1990s but they were known as ‘special diet foods’. They were sold only through health food stores and were manufactured either by existing soya /vegetarian manufacturers such as Alpro, Haldane or Redwood, cashing in on the dairy-free-ness of their products, or by existing coeliac manufacturers such Juvela, Glutafin, Trufree or Barkat who made primarily prescription products along with a few retail lines to be sold through the health trade.

But things were changing.

FreeFrom 2000-2005

Two major changes occurred at the early years of the 21st century which were to move freefrom from a hairy, brown rice health food products into the main stream –

  1. The burgeoning interest of the supermarkets in the sector
  2. The growth of on-line marketing


Patricia Wheway at Tesco is credited with having launched freefrom in the supermarket sector in 2002 – as indeed she did. Patricia had a small son who was on a very restricted diet and, having been a buyer at Tesco before she had her son, she could not see any reason why she should not be able to buy foods for him in ‘her own’ supermarket. So she persuaded her former bosses to allow her to return to set up – and promote – a freefrom section.

But in fact, Sainsbury’s was not far behind and it was they who produced the first own label freefrom range later in 2002.

For the next six or seven years supermarket enthusiasm for freefrom waxed and waned depending on the inclination of the buyer concerned. Ranges got tired and dusty, got spruced up and relaunched and got tired and dusty again with depressing predictability.

Internet marketing

The ability to take small orders via a website and deliver direct via the post or a courier opened up enormous possibilities for the army of allergy-sufferer cooks who believed that they could make a better gluten free cake, or muffin or apple pie than they could buy – and that there were thousands of other allergy sufferers out there who would be willing to buy them.

It meant that they could start manufacture, literally in their kitchen with minimum start up costs and, far more important, that they did not need distribution – the stumbling block over which most of the small start ups in the 1990s had come to grief.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as it looked and many small start ups fell by the way side – but many survived to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.

Meanwhile, within the food industry…

1. The growth of craft food industries.

Through a bit of happy serendipity the entirely independent growth of craft manufacturers fed into the growing freefrom food industry. Bakers such as the Village Bakery, exploring the use of unusual ingredients in search of more authenticity or excellence, or dairy farmers wanting to diversify out of cow’s milk products into sheep or goat’s milk, found themselves unwittingly supplying to consumers who were seeking alternative ingredients for totally different allergy-based reasons.

2. Allergy awareness in the food industry

Enterprising manufacturers were starting to become aware of allergies and how they might be relevant to their business.
Back in 1998 Clive Beecham at Kinnerton Confectionery had been so moved by the plight of nut allergic children unable to eat any chocolate because of ‘may contain nut’ warnings, that he spent over £1million creating a nut-free zone with in the Kinnerton factory – but he had been a lone pioneer.
But by 2004 Michael Bell of the Lake District bakers, Bells of Lazonby was one of the first to see ‘special diets’ as an investment/expansion opportunity when he bought the Village Bakery and invested in a dedicated gluten-free facility to create ‘freefrom’ products for the Village Bakery’s growing band of freefrom customers and, he hoped, for a growing market outside their immediate area.

2005-2011 FreeFrom gathering pace

First freefrom seminar 2006

By 2006 when FDIN staged the first of his freefrom seminars, over half the attendees were not freefrom companies but from main stream food industries with no experience, but a growing interest, in freefrom.

I remember being particularly struck by a comment by a lady from Thorntons who was so gobsmacked by what she heard about allergies and the growing number of allergic chocolate eaters that she was going straight back to initiate a complete review of all their procedures to see where they could exclude unnecessary allergens.

Adapting existing products – Lactofree

Large manufacturers started looking at their portfolio to see whether they contained products which could be adapted to suit the burgeoning free from market.  The most obvious is probably Arla Foods who dusted down the 20 year old UHT lactose- reduced milk, Lactolite and turned into the trendy telly-advertised, heavy-tweeting, now-to-be-found-in-every-supermarket chiller cabinet, Lactofree.

Dedicated manufacturing

New start up companies, like Love More FreeFrom in Wales, saw building dedicated freefrom factories as a way to steal a march on existing companies in supplying to supermarkets – while much larger companies, like United Central Bakeries, went out and built dedicated plants to ensure that they were also ready to supply what they saw as a growing supermarket demand.

Technical development

Meanwhile some serious technical ‘wellie’ was now being applied to freefrom manufacture with the result that there was a major step change in the quality of the products on offer. 

The launch of the Genius bread in 2008 moved the bar way up in terms of gluten free bread manufacture; excellent work in Italy improved gluten free pastas to the point that it was hard to tell them from the ‘real thing’; companies like Swedish Glace produced a soya ice cream which could hold its own with any high street brand, while more specialist manufacturers such as Booja Booja were doing things with cashew nuts and agave syrup which was sweeping their way through the food wards. Even humble gluten-free sausages were winning award for sausage excellence!

Improved packaging, nutritional profile, advertising and marketing spend.

And along with improvement in quality came improvements in packaging, nutritional content and increased advertising and marketing spend.

FreeFrom Food Awards

By 2008 Freefrom even had its own awards! Modest in 2008 but, thanks to the industry’s enthusiasm now in the fifth ever more successful year!


2011 onwards

So, where now?   Well, although much has changed in freefrom, very little has changed as regards the underlying problems which gave birth to the movement. If anything they have just become more acute:

• Even more children and adults either are, or believe themselves to be suffering from food allergies or intolerances and therefore believe that they need to buy freefrom. According to Mintel’s latest figures 10% of the population now buy freefrom because of an allergy or intolerance.

• The incidence of coeliac disease is now thought not to be 1 in 300 but 1 in 70 or even higher while there is a growing awareness in medical and informed lay circles that non-coeliac gluten intolerance may be a far greater problem even than coeliac disease. So that is, at a conservative estimate, another 1 in 50 who will need to buy freefrom.

• The obesity epidemic continues to grow with up to 60% (according to some estimates) of the UK population either overweight or obese – do not even think what that figure is in the US. There appears to be increasing evidence of a connection between gluten and inflammation, which leads to water retention, which sets you on the road to obesity.

• Meanwhile, encouraged by health writers, complementary practitioners and food and sustainability campaigners of all type,s more and more people are questioning where their food comes from, how it has been manufactured and whether it could have an impact on their health, including their attempts to lose weight.
It is almost impossible to put a figure on this group but if you include all shades from the health fanatics to the casual ‘well, if it tastes OK and it is better for me’ shopper, it is a lot of people who may choose to buy freefrom.
Mintel’s current figures puts regular non-allergic, non-intolerant, buying-freefrom-for-health shoppers at 18% while assorted other  ‘surveys’ suggest that up to 40% of the shopping population buying freefrom foods at some point –and that number can only go up.


So how where next?

I believe that the freefrom industry should be looking seriously looking, as I said at the beginning, not at just becoming mainstream but at becoming  THE mainstream. 

If freefrom products can taste as good as ‘normal’ products but can exclude those ingredients that consumers believe, rightly or wrongly have an adverse effect on their health, and only cost slightly more, then why would a family with one ‘freefrom’ member not buy freefrom for the whole family? Or a group of people going out to dinner with one freefrom diner amongst them not all eat in a freefrom restaurant?

But to achieve this, the food’s ‘freefrom’-ness needs to become a plus point, not a raison d’etre.

Quality, quality, quality

Make it easy for the whole family to buy and eat freefrom even if only one member actually needs or chooses to do so.


More New Product Development (NPD)

Obviously freefrom needs to continue the great work which has been done over the last few years in NPD right across the sector – freefrom products need to taste better, be healthier and cover a wider range – more ready meals, more snack products, more treat products etc, replicating the standard main stream categories.

But it needs to do so with the goal of supplanting the non-freefrom version of each product. If a freefrom bread tastes as good as a non freefrom bread, then why should the whole family not eat the freefrom bread? No reason at all. What a boon that would be to the family caterer!

Remove allergens from existing products

And this may not be as difficult as it is assumed. A number of major companies are now reviewing their portfolio to see how many unnecessary allergens (added whey powder right down at the bottom of the ingredients lists) they could actually remove from their products. Who knows how often a quite minor reformulation would create a freefrom version of a well established and popular product?

Listen to your market

I know that certainly the supermarkets and, I am sure, others take constant readings of their freefrom customers wants and wishes but, for what it is worth, during last year’s Allergy Show we got visitors to our stand (90% of them existing or potential freefrom shoppers) to fill in a short survey about their shopping habits. This was in no way a scientific undertaking but a few useful pointers for manufacturers came out of it:

• around 60% shopped freefrom either weekly or bi-weekly
• A very significant majority of respondents wanted to be able to buy all their freefrom food in supermarkets and of those and, surprisingly, an even more significant majority  wanted to be able to find their freefrom foods in the man aisles, not in a dedicated freefrom area.
• Delivery charges and the difficulty of taking delivery of their goods put four out of every five shoppers off buying on line.
• 80% of respondents found ‘freefrom’ symbols helpful, 85% would like to see ‘wheat free’, ‘dairy free’ etc flashes on all packs and 80% wanted to see a full nutritional breakdown on freefrom packs. This is probably relevant as most respondents were keen to for freefrom products to have lower levels of fat, sugar and salt.
• Finally, for around 70% of respondents the taste of the product was the most important aspect of a freefrom products, for around 60% its reliability in terms of allergen exclusions was the most important and for around 40% its nutritional profile was the key issue.

Catering for the ‘feel good’ factor

Just as the average ‘non aligned’ consumer is likely to buy an organic, free trade or local version of a product if one is available and they think it will taste as nice, because it will give them a warm glow to have done so, freefrom manufacturers should aim to get freefrom from up there with organic, fair trade or local as ‘feel good’ reasons to buy a product.
‘Well, cornflakes are nice, but if the freefrom cornflakes are just as nice and are better for me/my family, then why don’t I buy those and do us all some good at the same time?’

And of course, if freefrom can manage to combine with organic, freetrade and local, then the warm glow of virtue it will offer prospective shoppers will ooze right down the aisle!


However, all this is fine but the products need to be available – not just in the health store or the freefrom aisle of the supermarket –

On line
On line is amazing but delivery costs push up prices and if you are at work all day, taking delivery of your food may be a problem.

The corner shop, the petrol station, the coffee shop.
The products need to be in the corner shop, and the petrol station and the coffee shop. And the same principle applies here – if the freefrom product tastes as good and the non freefrom one, why would the petrol station not stock it thereby satisfying all potential customers.

Out of the dedicated fixture in supermarkets

And much though dedicated freefrom shoppers will complain, freefrom needs to get out of the dedicated supermarket fixture and onto the ‘normal’ breakfast cereal, bread, biscuits etc shelves. Organic sales rocketed once the products moved out into the main aisles as non-organic shoppers saw the products for first time and thought (see feel good factor) they would give them a try.


Food service

Finally – there is a massive opportunity awaiting the freefrom industry in food service which is as yet, very poorly served.
• Restaurants, cafés, bars, pubs, hotels
• Canteens, factories
• Hospitals, schools, care homes
• Everywhere you buy food to eat on the hoof

Food service offers hug opportunities to free from

Given the problems inherent in catering for allergics in restaurants (high turnover of poorly trained staff with a generally poor grasp of the language, frequently changing menus, endless possibilities of contamination) really good, ready-prepared freefrom from foods would be a huge boon both the establishment and to food sensitive person eating there.

Ideally, of course, food service outlets will learn to cater safely for freefrom customers but, meanwhile, there is also a huge opportunity for ready-made freefrom products in attractive packs that can actually be offered to the customer:
Complete meals
Individual dishes
Mixes, batter bahji mixes, biscuit bases
Desserts, ice creams

Advantages of ready made products in food service:

For the customer:
Safety – the products is secure from kitchen contamination and staff error/ignorance.
They can read  the ingredients so know exactly what they are eating

For the outlet:
Safety – they do not need to worry so much about kitchen contamination.
Staff training and allergy awareness becomes far less of an issue.

And once again, the same principles apply – if the freefrom food tastes as good as the non-freefrom food, then all the guests can eat freefrom – and every one wins!

Problem areas in freefrom

FreeFrom ingredients currently remain significantly more expensive than non free from and until volumes increase, this will probably remain the case.


As anyone already involved in the area will know, although thresholds  (the amount of an allergen below which an allergic person will not react) have now been set for gluten free products (less than 20 parts per million for a product to be ‘gluten free’, less than 100ppm to be 'very low gluten') there are still no thresholds for dairy, egg, soya, nut or any other major allergen, nor are there likely to be for some time to come.

This is partly because no one actually knows how small an amount of an allergen will cause a reaction in an ultra sensitive person and partly because testing equipment is not as yet sensitive enough to test down to a level at which it is thought that an ultra sensitive person might react.


To ensure that your product is genuinely free of the allergen you claim, it needs to be testing far more rigorously and more often than a standard product adding significant manufacturing cost.


As with thresholds, there is still no across the board agreement on how freefrom foods should be labelled – which creates significant problems for both the manufacturer and the consumer. Sadly, standardisation of allergen labelling (ingredients lists and the declaration of major allergens excepted) still seems a long way off.

Duty of care, due diligence, product recalls

Product recalls are a nightmare for any manufacturer but they carry particular risk when manufacturing freefrom as poor manufacturing practice resulting in contamination can, although rarely does, have fatal consequences – with all the negative publicity that brings with it.


But.... the futures is rosy

None the less, even with these caveats – the future for freefrom seems pretty rosy to me. So rosy in fact that, if all goes well, I believe that in a further five years time, it will have got so well embedded into the mainstream that it will be indistinguishable from it!


For a brief overview of the whole seminar see the Foodsmatter blog.

For the individual presentations, see the FDIN site.

For an interesting article on freefrom and the conference see Food Manufacture - 23/9/11


Firist Published in September 2011


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