Free-from is defined as foods that are manufactured and targeted specifically at consumers who suffer from food intolerance and/or food allergies, or who are following avoidance diets (Mintel, August 2017). The retail value of free-from products rose by 8% in 2017 to reach €98 million (Passport, Euromonitor International, June 2018). Further forecasts predict the market will reach €123 million by 2022.
Consumer confidence and market growth
Demand for free from foods continues to be fuelled by the rise in the number of consumers suffering from allergies, while Mintel (August 2017) report that ‘lifestylers’ (those who perceive free-from products to be healthy alternatives) and increased availability of products are encouraging growth recently.
Rising consumer confidence in Ireland is expected to continue to positively impact health and wellness sales, including free from packaged foods (Passport, Euromonitor International, June 2018). Over the coming years, consumers are expected to be able to spend more on non-essential items such as free from dairy milk alternatives, which have a higher unit price compared to regular dairy milk products.
Irish retailers have realised that the free-from trend is not going away. Mintel report that all major retailers have added new products and upgrades to their free-from ranges in a bid to gain greater foothold into the burgeoning free-from market. Mintel expects other retailers to widen their availability in order to avoid loyal customers shopping at nearby competitors for gluten-free food.
Image Source: Mintel, August 2017
Potential slowdown in growth
However, there could potentially be a slowdown in growth due to external factors such as the potential impact of Brexit on the Irish economy, depending on negotiations regarding the land border with the United Kingdom via Northern Ireland. Considerable levels of increased innovation in the market has occurred in recent years, but new product development is expected to slow as the market increases in maturity. Mintel (August 2017) highlight increased competition and increased brand loyalty as factors in decreasing growth levels coming into years 2020 and 2021.
Free from dairy is expected to be the fastest growing area over the coming years, with sales being driven by rising demand for free from dairy other milk alternatives. This area is expected to remain popular as a result of continued demand for nut based products, in line with the health and wellness trend.
Despite increased uptake of free-from, there has been much contention in the media over the perceived healthfulness of free-from food. A key argument is that certain free-from diets such as gluten-free are a fad and an unhealthier lifestyle choice, especially for those not diagnosed with coeliac disease. This is because gluten-free food often contains higher levels of sugar and salt to compromise on gluten.
The majority of Irish consumers (56% RoI) say they would be interested in seeing new free-from food that is low in sugar. Mintel advise that Free-from manufacturers would be wise to lower the sugar content of their products where possible as this is likely acting as a deterrent to purchasing.
Image Source: Mintel, August 2017
The top 5 types of food that are avoided due to a confirmed or suspected allergy /intolerance are:
Gluten-free is a leading sub-category within the free-from market. Snacks are the largest sub-category of food claiming to have low/no/reduced gluten content. This has seen a trend rise in ingredients such as nuts, seed and legumes which are naturally low in gluten. Pasta has seen its market shrink internationally in recent years, with consumers less eager to buy between 2011-2015. Gluten-free pasta has since been launched in Ireland and the UK since 2017. Cereals have also struggled in the free-from era, as high levels of sugar and consumption with milk (lactose) have put health-conscious consumers off.
Dairy is the most widely bought free-from food/ingredient bought in Ireland, with 51% of consumers having bought substitutes such as coconut milk or soya cheese in the last six months. 10% of consumers said they bought a dairy substitute due to a food allergy/intolerance in their household, while 6% said they bought a substitute as part of a general healthy lifestyle. In the same study, 9% avoided lactose due to due to a food allergy/intolerance in their household, with 7% avoiding it for a healthy lifestyle.
Wheat products are often marketed as gluten-free due to the presence of gluten in wheat, however it is also possible for people to have a specific allergy for wheat. Consumers who are specifically intolerant to wheat are also known to eat some gluten-free foods. A study from Bord Bia (April 2017) found that nearly eight in 10 (78%) people follow a gluten-free diet even though they have not been diagnosed as coeliac. Some 38% of these say that do not have an intolerance to wheat at all, but perceive gluten-free to be a healthier lifestyle choice.
Lactose intolerance is a digestive problem caused by an adverse reaction to lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. Products that are lactose-free do not necessarily mean they are dairy free as lactose is often removed from milk based products. As mentioned before, 9% avoided lactose due to due to a food allergy/intolerance in their household, with 7% avoiding it for a healthy lifestyle.
7% of consumers in Ireland avoid nuts due to a food allergy/intolerance in their household, while 4% tend to avoid nuts as part of a general healthy lifestyle.
Others – Soya
Soya is the most avoided food type by Irish consumers as part of a general healthy lifestyle, with 7% of respondents saying they avoid the ingredient. This is likely due to the perception of soya as a highly-processed food/ingredient because it is a genetically modified product. In comparison, only 3% of respondents said they avoid soya due to a food allergy/intolerance in their household.
As a sector, the free from market is seeing continued growth and is forecasted to grow by 25% in the next three years. This level of growth is expected to level off after this period, with Brexit a major factor in how food companies and consumers will behave in the coming years. Dairy products dominate the market, while consumers continue to monitor the levels of sugar in their food. “Lifestylers” and consumers with allergies are the main target market and food companies are advised to monitor the consumer behaviour of these demographics.
- Mintel. Free-from Foods – Ireland, August 2017
- Euromonitor International. Free from in Ireland. June 2018
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