IS FREE-FROM HERE TO STAY?
By Gauthier Ajarrista
The free-from market is booming – recent numbers from Kantar Worldpanel show that its value in the UK rose a whopping 40%, to £806.1m in the past year. And with big retailers successfully pushing their own free-from ranges, it’s clear that these products are now really entering the mainstream. However, there are some who believe that free-from foods are just a fad, and that like all other fads they will eventually subside to make way for some new trend. History tells us that this is likely to happen, and maybe even sooner than later. Nonetheless, we must look more closely at the factors behind the rise of free-from in order to better estimate the category’s potential over time.
Just another fad?
One of the key facets of the recent popularity of free-from products is that their appeal now reaches far beyond their initial target, that’s to say the 5% of people who actually need free-from products to eat and live normally. Now coeliacs and lactose-intolerants worldwide are being joined by the masses, itching for their next fix of coconut yogurt or gluten-free brioche. While this means impressive growth today, it could also imply that as soon as these free-from upstarts grow tired of paying extra for almond milk, the category could shrink back to catering only to core users.
All of that could realistically happen because, as you’d expect, the usual culprits are driving this trend: young, urban consumers. The kind that switch from one trend to the next in a heartbeat, leaving droves of hopeful start-ups crashing in their wake. 64% of 25-34 year olds, and 62% of Londoners say they regularly buy free-from products, while these numbers dip well under for older generations and consumers in Yorkshire and the North West. And just as the days of skin-tight jeans, mason jars for glasses and avocado mousse are now ending after taking the UK by storm for almost a decade, surely free-from must eventually face the same fate? A survey by Bookatable has revealed how Brits are showing clear symptoms of ‘food fad fatigue’. People have grown tired of things like power shots, energy balls and quinoa burgers. These are likely the same people who see things like gluten-free cupcakes and soy-lattes as just more incongruous oddities that they can’t wait to never hear about anymore. The risk is that free-from foods, in time, stay stuck behind with the other fads destined to be forgotten.
Free-from runs the risk of only ever being perceived as a fad for the young, hip and affluent, destined to wane as so many foodie trends have before it.
Yet free-from has bright days ahead of it
If the category is making such great strides, it’s first and foremost thanks to its health credentials. Consumers are increasingly focused on micro-managing their diets and targeting specific ingredients, and years of bad press have put gluten and dairy on the blacklist for many of them. More and more people are finding that, while they are not necessarily lactose or gluten-intolerant, removing either or both from their diets has helped them. Many even say it’s changed their lives. Rather than a trend, this appears to be part of consumers making a durable change towards taking better care of themselves in the face of swelling epidemics of IBS, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease – to name a few.
The Bookatable survey also reveals that today people are now more focused on things such as sustainability, local sourcing and food waste. They are growingly aware of the impact that their consumption habits have socially, economically and environmentally. Rather than to hunt for the latest and hippest concoction to adorn their Instagram feed, they want to make more responsible choices. Globally, this means that their decisions are now more driven by purpose, and based on real life considerations rather than subject to the fluctuations of hype and style.
This is especially important in the case of dairy free, as UK consumers are increasingly switching to vegan and dairy-free diets, motivated not only by health and diet-related but also ethical concerns. While the question of the social and environmental impact of dairy-free remains very much problematic (particularly with soy and almond cultivation), consumers seem more alarmed by the flaws of the dairy industry. The number of Vegans in the UK has tripled in the past decade to now half a million, and is set to keep on growing. However, even larger potential resides in the ‘flexitarians’ – those 35% of people who say they’re ‘semi-vegetarian’. They are driven by similar considerations, but don’t necessarily want to impose radical transformations on their lifestyles. It follows that these people will mainly go for the easier diet changes and substitutions – and store bought, ready-made, health-focused free-from products are about as easy as it gets. Switching to non-dairy ice cream, yogurt, and replacing your milk with any of the myriad of alternatives is now easier – and tastier – than ever. There’s no longer any need to source your nearest specialised organic health store, just pop to Sainsbury’s and grab a Coyo.
It’s worth noting here that price remains a serious barrier to purchase, with 47% of brits saying they’d buy more of it if it was cheaper. The aforementioned Coyo, albeit delicious, charges £4.99 for a 400-gram pot. At such prices, free-from is doomed to remain resolutely middle-class. But as free-from democratises, and more accessible own-brand ranges continue to sprout as they have in the past year, we can certainly expect prices to drop. And in any case, with more people turning to healthier eating habits, the incentive to fork out more for free-from increases.
Lastly, an underreported yet essential aspect of the free-from movement is a simple one: taste. Free-from has much more to offer as a catalyst for delicious, category-growing innovations. Consumers in their millions wouldn’t be buying into things like coconut-milk ice cream or hazelnut milk if many of them didn’t think these things were actually just yummy.
The rise of free-from is sustained by profound long-term evolutions in consumer habits and demands. These are set to not only remain, but even gain more ground, promoting growth in the category for years to come.
What Can We Learn?
Free-from is part of something bigger
From the ever-growing spread of wellness amongst consumers, to the urgent imperative that societies pay closer attention to animal welfare and environmental issues, the boom of free-from is bolstered by real and lasting phenomena. Unlike most of the gastro-trends that have dominated the past decade, free-from has deep implications with regards to people’s health and wellbeing. Dismissing the sudden market boom of free-from as a mere fad could prove short-sighted, when this growing category holds far more promise and potential.
All free-Froms are not equal
While all of them initially respond to dietary restrictions of people dealing with real health issues, they don’t all have the same potential in entering the mainstream. If we consider growth fuelled by consumers switching to more vegetarian diets, the implications are wider-reaching for dairy-free than for gluten or wheat-free. On one hand, as concerns grow around the impact of the dairy industry on both livestock and the environment, there is a real ethical and environmental impetus behind dairy-free. Dairy is even said to be facing a demographic time-bomb, as today’s youngsters (and tomorrow’s consumers) are not drinking as much milk as children used to. On the other hand, consumers have less qualms about eating wheat, or the impact of its production. Furthermore, dairy-free has so far done a better job at offering products that are not just substitutions, but attractive in their own right. There is exoticism and originality in using new ingredients like tropical nuts and oats that is lacking from the notion of just not using wheat.
Consumers are asking for more choice and lower prices. To address this, brands must push for even more innovation and exploration into the possibilities linked to free-from. Categories like chilled desserts could have much to gain from developing new ranges of dairy-free products. Not only would these appeal to those actively seeking to avoid dairy, but by exploring new taste profiles and ingredient combinations they could attract consumers at large. Seizing these opportunities will also mean developing exciting brands to go with them, that connect with consumers on a level beyond the functional benefits of free-from. Health connotations are a key driver for purchase, but brands must be careful not to appear too pharmaceutical in order to help free-from into the mainstream. Instead they must harness the emotional aspects that come with making changes for the better.
Alpro has dominated the category thus far in the UK through the semiotics of health and purity – but emerging brands like Oat-ly are fast stealing market share by engaging consumers through more emotional design.
The Bottom Line
It’s understandable that free-from’s sudden boom in the market has left some sceptical as to the real longevity and potential of this new category. After all, nutritional fads have come and gone before and this one could too, especially given the volatility of a dominantly young and urban market. However, when looking closer at the fundamental forces behind the growth of free-from, rather than symptoms of ephemeral trendiness, we find important evolutions in consumer attitudes and priorities. These have the power to propel free-from much further into the mainstream, and to fuel healthy and sustainable growth well into the future. Brands wishing to seize this opportunity will need to find the emotional connection with consumers that go beyond the functional aspects of free-from, and unearth the deep and personal motivations and feelings that are pushing consumers to make the switch.