We find out about the importance of free-from foods

Thursday, 1st December, 2016

Free-From Food

With consumers becoming increasingly aware about what goes into their food, the demand for healthier alternatives has grown. This has led to the mainstreaming of free-from and vegan products, as diners seeking out such options for reasons other than being intolerant or allergic to ingredients in other foods.

The UK free-from market is booming.

Indeed, it is estimated that the free-from sector is worth £531 million and will rise to £673m by 2020.

The increase in demand for free-from food could be due to the number of people with a food allergy, or intolerance.

However, consumers with more knowledge about where food comes from and how it is produced are increasingly looking for healthier options and this has helped to drive the demand for free-from products. 

We decided to take a closer look at this important sector of the foodservice market and find out how food-to-go and QSR operators can ensure they are catering for everyone’s dietary needs.

Industry voices: Nikolai Lazarev, CEO, London Falafel; Adrian Ling, Managing Director, Plamil Foods;  Tarryn Gorre, Co-founder of Kafoodle; Emily Sudell, Marketing Manager, Bells of Lazonby; Louise Collins, Marketing Co-ordinator, Booja-Booja; Tony Goodman, CEO, Yumsh Snacks Ltd; Andrew Scott, Managing Director, Victus Hospitality Consultancy; David Colwell, Foodservice Manager, The Real Soup Co; Paul Eason, Chef and Business Development Manager, Pidy UK; David Street, Marketing Manager for The Premium Snack Company, and Aine Melichar, Brand Development Manager, Kerrymaid.

How important are free-from and vegan products to the food-to-go/QSR market?

Nikolai Lazarev, from London Falafel, which creates all-natural, vegan and gluten-free falafel, said: “Mintel estimates that the UK market alone will be worth £531 million in 2016 (up 13 per cent from 2015), while in a recent YouGov survey, it was found that one in six of the UK population believe they have a food allergy or intolerance and 25 per cent of UK households include at least one food allergy or intolerance sufferer. This is why the availability of high quality, great tasting free-from food is so crucially important.

“Great tasting free-from and vegan food is very important in the food-to-go/QSR market as health conscious consumers are becoming more aware about what they eat and are looking to find healthier alternatives without compromising on taste.

“Due to this trend premium food outlets, such as Pret A Manger, are paying closer attention to the demands of customers who want free-from options, and are adding free-from products to their menus to ensure they are catering for everyone.

“The market for falafel has grown an impressive 20% since last year. Falafel is now the number one choice for a growing number of vegans and vegetarians and more people are shifting to a plant-based diet, a trend that will only increase. London Falafel is proud to be at the helm of this exciting food trend.”

David Colwell, from The Real Soup Co, which produces handmade soups (including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options) for the foodservice industry, said: “Market analysts, MCA Allegra, reported recently that the UK food-to-go market is growing at an impressive 5.4% year-on-year, and it’s no surprise that with lunch hours shrinking to around 27 minutes (dropping from 36 minutes in 2000), the pressure is on for operators to deliver great food, fast.

“The free-from consumer is now an integral part of the mix, their purchasing power representing a considerable slice of the foodservice market.

“This is both a challenge and an opportunity for caterers. It’s incredibly important that their range spans vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free flavours, ensuring these burgeoning diet trends are well catered for. Conversely they also need help and information from food producers to know which of their products contain allergens and what those allergens are.”

Andrew Scott, of Victus Hospitality Consultancy, said: “According to Allergy UK, around 45% per of the population of the UK has a food allergy or intolerance.

“For the people affected, this is an inconvenience at best and life threatening at worse. Additionally, there are now over 500,000 vegans in the country, an enormous 360% increase in the past ten years.

“The food service industry has to keep ahead of such trends to be able to offer customers the best service safety as possible.

“This isn’t simply a box ticking exercise of adding token free-from and vegan dishes to menus. Eating out is an experience to be enjoyed, and as such all customers should be offered a choice of delicious, imaginative and creative dishes.”

Adrian Ling, from Plamil Foods, which produces free-from, vegan and vegetarian food, said: “The important question is not should I be catering for this market,  but how much will I be losing out on if I do not cater for this market?

“Foodservice operators need to category manage. They should have offerings for each category. Don’t have 10 offerings for the standard meat eater, as you will sell the same amount with eight offerings. By replacing meat options with free-from/vegan items you will open up to a large potential customer base. 

“You only have to look at the new Veggie Pret store that is now here to stay, to recognise the demand is there.” 

Tony Goodman, CEO of Yumsh Snacks Ltd, which produces free-from crisps and popcorn, agreed there was a growing demand for free-from products.

He said: “Savvy restaurant operators will have noted an increased preference for free-from products. The demand for gluten and wheat-free food is driving this growth, partly led by the trend for health and wellbeing. Some consumers are choosing free-from products for healthier lifestyles while some choose free-from products because of an allergy or intolerance.

“Plant-based diets are also growing in popularity, with The Vegan Society recently reporting that more than half a million people in the UK now follow a vegan lifestyle.”

David Street, from the Premium Snack Company, which produces snacks using natural ingredients, added: “As special dietary produce continues to be allocated greater shelf space and is no longer limited to the specific in-store fixtures it once was, it’s clear that free-from is undergoing a transition from ‘niche to normal’ and that the category presents an important opportunity for retailers and the QSR market.

“While those who choose free from products out of necessity rather than preference still account for the majority of market share, consumers choosing to cut meat, gluten, wheat, eggs or dairy from their diets in a bid to lead altogether healthier lifestyles, rather than as a solution for specific ailments or intolerances, are helping to move free-from into the mainstream food-to-go/QSR markets and significantly drive the growth of the sector.

“In the more developed US market, gluten-free snacks alone have been responsible for driving recent growth, with sales increasing by 132% between 2013 and 2015, highlighting the opportunity for UK retailers.”

Why is free-from and vegan food growing in popularity?

Tarryn Gorre, Co-founder of Kafoodle, an app that helps diners find places to eat with menus that cater for food allergies or intolerances, said: “There are over two million people suffering from one or more food allergies in the UK and this number is growing every year.

“Forty-five per cent of people need to consider a food allergy or intolerance when cooking for their families and 5-8% of children have a food allergy.  This makes the market ripe, with the free-from sector growing daily. In addition, the average consumer is now much more aware of sugar, fats and other nutritional values.

“Pre-2014, it was much easier for caterers of all kinds to shut their eyes to this trend, but since the introduction of 2014 legislation making it obligatory for restaurants of all kinds provide information on allergens on demand, this issue has really come to the fore.

“There’s been a massive growth in demand for foods that are not only free-from in terms of allergens but also meet dietary requirements in terms of being low sugar, low carb or high in protein. This is the kind of food that people are eating at home and are increasingly demanding when they eat out.”

Tony added: “Overall, one in three consumers are now choosing food and drink which is ‘free-from. This is for several reasons.

“Health and wellbeing is driving growth, and free-from veganism is reaching a far wider audience, thanks to a growing choice of products on the market and even some celebrities endorsing such lifestyle choices. Consumers are also opting for free-from products as they look to add variety to their shopping baskets by trying new textures, flavours and ingredients.”

Emily Sudell, from family bakery Bells of Lazonby, said: “The choice of foods available and the taste of these products versus mainstream products is becoming ever more indistinguishable. Therefore the added benefits of avoiding gluten and dairy comes at so much less of a taste compromise now that more consumers are purchasing these products at higher frequency rates.”

David Street agreed that the added benefits of free-from food were helping to drive the growth in popularity. He said: “Time and again, our customers report that they are keen to buy free-from products, even when they do not suffer from any allergies or intolerances.

“It’s this perception of free-from ranges as functional foods – foodstuffs whose benefits go far beyond the realms of basic nutrition to deliver a positive impact on health – that could be attributed to price increases across the category, with ‘flexible’ free-fromers viewing the above-average costs as a sign of a quality product.”

Nikolai added: “In recent years, consumers have become educated about the food they eat and are now more health conscious. There has been an unprecedented growth in consumers’ awareness about the effects food can have on our health, such as red meat being linked to cancer. As a result, we are seeing a clear shift in preference of a large number of consumers in favour of cleaner, healthier more natural food, which often happens to be vegan.

“Therefore, why would we eat products that have the possibility of damaging our health when free-from products provide a healthier option?

“If we, producers, can create great tasting food without artificial additives and allergens such as egg, gluten, lactose, wheat, etc, then we create more choice for consumers and this is something food service operators need to consider.”

Paul Eason, from pastry product producer Pidy, agreed. He said: “A growing awareness of the health and digestive benefits of free-from foods, even amongst those without dietary requirements has led to the significant uptake in popularity of free-from ingredients. At the same time as foods become more popular, manufacturers are developing new processes and focusing heavily on using quality ingredients, which has not only increased the number of free-from foods available, but created authentic textures and flavours which are extremely similar to their original versions.”

Aine Melichar, from dairy ingredients producer Kerrymaid, said: “Across the category, people are becoming more aware of what’s in their food and the effect it may have on their health. With the allergen legislations that came into place in December 2014, caterers now have to be 100 per cent confident of what ingredients they are using in their meals.

“Fourteen ingredients are covered by the legislation, which applies to both food sold with and without packaging, and Kerrymaid has been at the forefront of helping caterers as it has been comprehensively labelling its products with detailed nutritional information well before the new regulations became part of the law.

“Gluten-free sales have seen an astronomical 30 per cent increase over the last six years, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. The growth in gluten-free sales is relevant not only to the increase in coeliac diners, but for those looking to adopt overall healthier lifestyle.”

Louise Collins, of Booja-Booja, which produces sweet products using organic ingredients, which are gluten, dairy and soya free, said: “Increasing demand has led to more free-from and vegan foods being produced and brought to market so there’s more choice than ever before and with that increased choice has come increasingly high standards – consumers now quite rightly expect free-from foods to compete with the mainstream versions.”

What are the latest trends in the free-from and vegan market?

Nikolai said: “As consumer awareness of health risks associated with consumption of certain food continues to grow, we are seeing that more and more people are shifting their preferences in favour of cleaner, identifiable, free-from foods.

“Veganism is continuing to rise and is currently taking central Europe by storm. It is important to realise that this trend is not local to the UK. For instance, in Germany there are seven million vegetarians and 1.3 million vegans, huge numbers, which are highly likely to increase in the future.

“In the UK, the market for falafel has grown an impressive 20 per cent since last year. Falafel is now the number one choice for a growing number of vegans and vegetarians, and people shifting to plant-based diets. This is a trend that will only increase in the future, while consumption of animal-based protein, especially red meat, is expected to gradually decline as flexitarianism becomes more and more popular as a dietary choice and lifestyle.”

David Street agreed that plant-based food were proving very appealing to consumers looking for free-from food. He said: “While consumers want functional foods to deliver results that verge on the supernatural, they also want ranges to remain as near to their natural state as possible. Plant-based products, which are simple, recognisable and have zero-added ingredients, and an abundance of naturally-occurring vitamins and nutrients, are all key preferences.”

Tarryn highlighted the move towards ‘clean eating’. She said: “There’s a massive trend towards clean eating (low sugar, low carbohydrates, raw food etc) and this is something that people are requesting when they eat out too.  We know that customers at, for example Temptations coffee shops, like to be able to see the calorie content on their sandwiches.”

Louise pointed out that there is also demand for free-from and vegan deserts. She said: “There is a lot of attention on vegan and free-from ice cream at the moment. Both artisan and mainstream brands have launched new products in recent months.”

Pointing out the need for choice when it comes to vegan and free-from options, Adrian said: “Outlets should try to start to think past the standard offerings, as it is becoming a competitive market. No longer should you be asking the question ‘do we have a vegan offering?’ Instead you should be asking ‘is my vegan food better/different than a competing business?’” 

What considerations do businesses need to take when preparing/serving free-from products alongside non free-from products?

Highlighting the risk of cross-contamination in regards to food preparation, Nikolai said: “Avoiding cross-contamination is the biggest challenge. If products that are free-from come into contact with items that are not free-from, cross-contamination may occur and certain harmful allergens may be transferred to the ‘free-from’ food.

“Food products, which have been subjected to cross-contamination may cause violent reactions amongst consumers with food sensitivities. Also such products cannot be claimed to be free-from.

“To avoid cross-contamination strict measures of separation must be implemented. Suppliers of ingredients must be vetted and checked to ensure that they have implemented anti-contamination practices.

“For instance, certain legumes are often found to contain material levels of gluten and this is often due to certain farming and harvesting practices employed.

“Areas used for products that contain, for example gluten, have to be very well cleaned if they are then going to be used to produce gluten-free products. There needs to be strict barriers to separate areas. To do it properly is harder than most people think.

“London Falafel is 100% free-from any cross-contamination as we only produce one product - falafel, and use only natural and free-from ingredients. We also carefully vet all our suppliers and ensure they have the necessary anti cross-contamination measures and certifications in place.”

Adrian agreed that the supply chain and how food is prepared were important elements to consider. He said: “There needs to be clear understanding of what the ingredient contains, and in particular, be aware that if a supplier is changed for any reason, that the ingredient being purchased does not contain any allergen that the previous ingredient did not. This is a critical point, which if it is underestimated could have severe consequences.

“Secondly, an understanding of segregation, preparation and serving of foods is needed. This should be pre-planned. A good guide for segregation is that, in cleaning terms, if it looks clean and dry then allergens may not be transferred, but thoughts about airborne allergen transfer should be considered.” 

Andrew pointed out that foodservice businesses are now required by law to provide clear information on allergens in food sold unpackaged. He said: “Since December 2014, the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation requires food businesses to provide clear information about the 14 key allergens on food sold unpackaged. Legislation can often be a mind-boggling minefield and it’s worth considering bringing in a knowledgeable outside consultant.”

He advised that operators need to consider:
• Training front of house and kitchen staff about food allergens and intolerances
• Effective ingredient labelling and storage
• Writing clear and concise information on menus
• Preparing an order for a customer with a food allergy or intolerance, especially when their allergy is severe
• Use and storage of separate utensils and equipment
• Sourcing food and dealing with any changes in either supplier or goods
• Stablishing good practice throughout your business
• Applying for accreditations and awards.

What does the future hold for free-from and vegan products?

“The future is very bright for free-from and vegan products that genuinely compete alongside their conventional counterparts,” says Louise. “It’s no longer enough to be ‘good enough for free-from’ - consumers expect and deserve free-from products that are delicious full stop.”

Nikolai agreed. He said:  “Consumers have now clearly shown that we want to eat fresh, natural food made of clean, identifiable ingredients.

“In future, I expect that great tasting free-from food will remain highly sought after, yet the focus will be on plant-based, vegan food made, for instance, of high-in-protein chickpeas and beans, fresh herbs, clean vegetables and so on.

“As awareness continues to grow, the ingredient label at the back of pack will become ever more important. Consumers will be reluctant to buy foods containing ingredients known to carry health risks, for example Xanthan gum, Guar gum etc, or simply ingredients which consumers do not understand, for example dextrose monohydrate and other commonly found, but not immediately understood, ingredients.

“I believe that great tasting, clean, free-from food based on plant protein will be the future of food in the UK and Europe.”

In terms of growth in the sector, Tarryn said: “The size of the free-from market is growing every year so this is something that businesses will be looking at in terms of new product development and marketing to back it up.

“We’ve developed an app for consumers to allow them to find places serving food that meets their dietary requirements in terms of allergens and nutritional requirements.  This provides consumers with more freedom to find what they’re looking for and eat safely, but it also allows caterers who are doing a good job in this area with a marketable opportunity.

“I think in general we’ll see a rise in the number of businesses embracing technology solutions to meet customer demand (and legal compliance) in this area. Millennials make up a high proportion of the food-to-go and QSR sector and this generation in particular is confident using technology. Basically, technology can help everyone from chefs and front of house staff to customers and, with increased consumer demand for food transparency, this is a trend to watch.”

Adrian added: “All indicators show that both free-from and vegan diets are on the increase.

“As the millennial generation matures, it is clear that those food outlets that do not, or choose not, to offer a vegan alternative will do so at a cost to themselves from lost business.

“It is estimated that the free-from sector will be worth £670m by 2020. Vegan foods are starting to penetrate into the premium restaurant market, but this sector seems to be lagging behind. There still appears to be many of these that are ignoring the clear trend, but once the Millennial generation mature, I am sure those setting the menus will finally wake up to the potential or potential loss in business.”

David Street said: “2017 will see consumers being presented with more choice than ever before, as the industry seeks to innovate and ride the wave of this growth in the category. Consumers are now demanding healthy, ‘clean’ on-the-go options that are also exciting, different and delicious.”

David Colwell agreed, adding: “Just because you have an intolerance, this shouldn’t mean you have to suffer bland food.  With regards to the chilled soup category we can see this becoming ever more adventurous – in line with the consumer palate – with world flavours such as Mexican, Sri Lankan and Indonesian, that add ‘heat’ and serious flavour, finding favour with consumers.”

It is clear to see that it is not only people who suffer from allergies and intolerances who are seeking out free-from food foods.

As consumers become more aware about how food is produced, the ingredients used and the impact they can have on our health, it is only to be expected that the free-from sector will continue to grow.

Adding to the attraction, is the fact that free-from and vegan products are being produced without compromising on taste.

However, food-to-go and QSR operators looking to tap into this growing sector have do more to attract customers seeking out free-from and vegan food.

Be it provide a more imaginative offering, or market their free-from/vegan credentials, operators need to take action if they want to claim a share of this lucrative market.