THOUGHT PIECE: Free From – What Do Consumers Think?

We have been hearing a lot about the rise and rise of ‘Free From’ foods recently, with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus and Victoria Beckham and the recent announcement from Waitrose that the whole category saw a 17% growth year on year in January. The increasing popularity of Free From seems set to continue.


There is a lot happening from brands too,  such as Free’ist, (a Northern Irish specialist in free-from products which recently added popcorn, breakfast biscuits and marshmallows to its range). Big brands are also getting in on the act (Newburn Bakehouse by Warburtons has launched the first free from artisan range to be seen on the free from aisle).


If that wasn’t enough, coffee shops and restaurants are increasing their Free From offerings (Costa has launched a new Free Range Egg and Slow Roasted Tomato Gluten-Free Wrap as part of its new Summer food and drink range).

But how many of us are eating Free From, who are they, and why are they choosing it? Is this a trend set to continue or will the bubble burst? We at Marketing Sciences Unlimited set out to discover the answers to these questions and more via an online survey of 2,000 UK consumers and qualitative flash pops.



Free From seems to have become a catch all title for food which does not contain an ingredient that could cause intolerance or allergy. But do consumers see it that way? Well, ¾ of those asked claimed to know what it is (higher among women), although when we went spoke to people on the street there is better understanding when individual ingredients are referenced, e.g. gluten free or dairy free. Perhaps this is understandable but it does mean that manufacturers and retailers should perhaps be wary of assuming that everyone knows what Free From stands for and think about clear signing and labelling on pack and in-store.

Just under half of people claimed to know where to buy Free From food and drink, with women again more likely to agree. This does mean that 50% claim not to know where to buy from! Although this is likely because they don’t buy it, perhaps it could indicate that Free From food and drink should be situated with other food and drink to increase awareness? In fact, when specifically asked, opinion was divided as to whether Free From should have its own space in store or be ‘mixed in’.




17% of us claim to buy Free From food or drink, particularly women, those aged 18-34, social grade ABC1 and those in the South-East, with wheat/gluten, dairy, fish and additives the most common ingredients to be avoided.  But why are people avoiding these foods? Are all these people allergic to the ingredients or is there another reason?

It turns out that the main reason stated for buying Free From is because people believe it to be generally healthier, with a third saying this, rather than due to a diagnosed condition or intolerance. Furthermore, just under 2 in 10 say they buy Free From because it tastes nicer. Interestingly men are more likely to say they buy because it tastes nicer whereas women are more likely to say it is due to a medically diagnosed condition. The fact that people are buying Free From for general health and taste reasons in addition to intolerances and medical conditions, does mean that there is scope to grow the category further: good news for manufacturers!



We gave our sensory panel some gluten free products to see whether there were any differences between them and non-Free From foods. This showed that gluten free crackers look more homemade and fibrous and have more of a wholewheat and oaty flavour. Therefore, could they be considered more premium, high quality, natural and good for you?

We asked people their perceptions of Free From and it seems general opinion of Free From is not that positive compared to standard food & drink. It is not really seen as homemade, natural, better quality or to taste better, so there is definitely an opportunity to improve the perception of Free From to encourage more people to try it, particularly men, who are less likely to currently buy.



So what about the future of Free From? We have compiled the following list:

 1. Free From when eating out


FreeFrom when eating out at restaurants


Just under a quarter said they would consider buying more in the future and the same proportion want Free From to be available in restaurants, with slightly fewer saying they want to eat or drink it ‘on the go’.

2. Fact Not Fad


A third agree Free From is a fad, with 19% saying that it is actually bad for you if you don’t have an allergy.

3. Don’t Forget Men and Young Consumers


FreeFrom untapped opportunity amongst Younger Men

We believe there is a bright future for Free From, given a move towards promoting other benefits, particularly if these benefits are to do with general health, taste & quality. There does seem to be an opportunity among men and younger people particularly, who are less likely to say they have a condition, but focus more on taste.

4. Instore Placement


Woman shopping in supermarket aisle

We believe it would help if Free From was situated in with other products in-store so that it becomes part of the shopping trip, rather than a destination in its own right.

5. Think About The Pack


Supermarket Shopping

Packaging needs to highlight the taste and quality of the product and not compromise the brand experience. The products must be optimised in terms of taste so that when trial is encouraged, people come back for more.

If you are thinking of developing a Free From product, optimising your current range, or finding out more about FreeFrom shoppers then give Becki Arnold a call on 01962 835380, or to improve your Free From packaging call Chris Peach on 01962 835407 to find out how we can help!

 Becki Arnold is an Associate Director in the Product Development & Sensory team at Marketing Sciences Unlimited.

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Becki Arnold
01962 842211
Article date - 22/07/2015
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