Are you going FreeFrom?.. that is the question

You can divide a room based on the plethora of attitudes towards the increasing numbers of those affected by food allergy or sensitivity, but it’s a growing global opportunity for the food and drink industry irrespective of opinion.

I recently attended The FDIN (Food & Drink Innovation Network) FreeFrom Summit which aimed to inform the industry about the requirements and opportunities for this sector.

Most of us will know someone affected.  Having suffered myself since a child, but only diagnosed at 18, this subject is close to my heart from both a personal and professional perspective. Yet with a population increasingly distressed by allergy or sensitivity the principle remedy to date continues to be avoidance.  Consumers therefore wholly rely on accurate ingredient information and safe food handling procedures.

No surprise then that the proportion of food and drink launches claiming to be allergen-free is increasing. It’s now mainstream, there’s choice.  While it’s great news that by the end of 2014 there will be requirement for clear labelling of all allergens in our food & drink ingredients, until there’s more clarity for those using the ‘may contain’ defensive labelling it’s still typically a minefield for consumers.  But FreeFrom is different…

HOW BIG IS THE OPPORTUNITY?

FreeFrom foods (food without key allergens) have emerged to change lives and believe me this is no exaggeration.  However how niche is this market and is it worth entering?

The key drivers for purchase of FreeFrom foods are avoidance of ingredients as they make you ill and avoidance of ingredients because the products are perceived to be healthier.

In a Marketing Sciences study on FreeFrom (among 2000 UK nationally representative consumers) 14% of households avoid key ingredients due to an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity; gluten, wheat, dairy, nuts, eggs being the principle offenders, although there are 30 key allergens alone and the list is becoming endless.  17% are buying ‘FreeFrom’ products which includes a proportion of consumers now looking for ‘healthier products’ – a primed target audience driving category growth.

Many brands have jumped at the FreeFrom challenge and there are some great success stories e.g. Genius and private label … But what about the big brands, where are they? Starting to arrive this is a relatively recent affair e.g. Youngs gluten-free fish fingers 2012, Barilla’s gluten-free pasta at the end of last year. So what is holding more of them back?

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES FACED

Evidently no manufacturer can take this responsibility on lightly. Production runs have to be distinct from other plant manufacturing and tend to be smaller, some needing highly skilled labour.  The cost impact leads some to treat it as a separate business and companies need a significant increase in revenue to make it work or can’t support or sustain it. As a result the category is still heavily inhibited by the following:

  • Lack of awareness
  • High(er) prices
  • Issues with distribution – try securing  a gluten-free mince pie after mid-December
  • Focus on whether products are actually more healthy by an audience focussed on health benefits – e.g. products tend to contain a higher proportion of sugar and fat (see the results of our research on sugar & sweeteners)
  • Challenges of sourcing local ingredients as substitutes means products are not meeting demands for provenance
  • Perceptions of non-comparability in terms of quality and crucially taste – you only have to look at the left-over FreeFrom offerings among all the empty plates where ‘normal’ cakes once tempted enticingly

Here at Marketing Sciences we support manufacturers at all stages of product development through to shopper research to deliver the optimum mix for successful innovation and launch.

CHANGING THE FUTURE OF THE CATEGORY

Awareness is a key challenge somewhat inhibited by FreeFrom’s dedicated fixture.  Until products are further integrated throughout the store awareness will be restricted primarily to those who seek out the products. .. and let’s be honest, most of the time it’s a struggle to find the fixture if you’re looking for it.  This will also benefit brands who have products that could tick the ‘ingredient-free’ box, e.g. oat cakes (wheat free), and at the moment struggle to know where to position products in store to optimise sales.

A common question at the FreeFrom Summit was therefore regarding positioning of products in store.  Chilled and frozen products tend already to be integrated into the main fixture but what about ambient? We ran a quick study to better understand this and of those buying FreeFrom foods nearly 2 in 3 would prefer/ wouldn’t mind if FreeFrom products were integrated with other similar products in store. So is it time and can FreeFrom sit competitively alongside its counterparts?

As an industry this is not a new challenge. Take Organic food and its integration from dedicated fixture to full integration. Yes there will be casualties and only the well packaged, well positioned and good value products will survive going forward vs the more esoteric offerings resting on the laurels of ‘I’m FreeFrom’. Products will need to meet expectations on a wider array of functional and emotional variables than just ‘it doesn’t contain..’

So let’s assume that in the not too distant future we do have more comparable FreeFrom products and that the market reaches maturity. I for one am excited, again from a personal and professional perspective. I’m looking forward to helping our clients not just meet these challenges but succeed in an increasingly competitive category! I’m also looking forward to a tasty, healthy future!

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Sara Spinks
01962 842211
Article date - 17/10/2014
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