Free From Sector Update




What is Free From food?

Free From is a catch-all term used to denote food and drink that has been designed to exclude one or more ingredients to which at least some consumers can have either an allergy or an intolerance.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is usually defined as a specific response by the immune system to a substance that it mistakenly believes to be harmful. The Food Standards Agency requires that the presence of 14 specific allergens is highlighted on product labels. These are:

  • cereals containing gluten
  • crustaceans
  • molluscs
  • fish
  • eggs
  • peanuts
  • nuts (tree nuts)
  • soya
  • milk
  • celery
  • mustard
  • sesame
  • lupin
  • sulphur dioxide (if above 10mg/kg, or 10 mg/litre)


What is an intolerance?

Some people suffer adverse reactions to substances – particularly foods – that have not sparked an immune system response. These responses are normally classed as intolerances or sensitivities and have a very wide range of causes, symptoms and degrees of severity. Some conditions, such as coeliac disease or phenylketonuria are caused by specific foods or food components, such as gluten or the amino acid phenylalanine respectively.

What are the most popular types of Free From food and drink?

A survey of supermarkets and natural food retailers indicates that the most commercially significant sectors of the Free From market are:

  • Wheat free/gluten free (flours, cakes, biscuits, pasta, bread)
  • Cow-dairy free (milk, yoghurt, butter, desserts, cheese)
  • Nut free (cakes, biscuits, chocolates, sweets, sauces)
  • Egg free (cakes, mayonnaise)


Recent media attention on the amount of sugar in the UK diet may bring products made without sugar (sucrose) such as jam and chocolate back into the Free From sector. There is also discussion as to whether the buoyant vegan and vegetarian sectors should be included in Free From.

What is the size of the market for Free From food and drink?

In February 2017 Kantar WorldPanel estimated the size of the UK Free From market at £800m per year at retail, up 38.5% year on year. More than three-quarters of the UK population (78%) now buy Free From products. Mintel predicts an extra £100m of annual sales by 2020. This figure could be even higher if gluten-free products come off prescription as the government has predicted, pushing more sales into retail.

Lifestyle choice is playing a big part in this growth. Far more consumers buy Free From than have been diagnosed with a food-related condition. Only 1% of the UK population have coeliac disease and so must avoid gluten, while an estimated 15% are intolerant to lactose (Kantar). YouGov research indicates that Free From buyers with an allergy or intolerance are now in a minority.

Research commissioned by The Grocer in November 2015 states that “one-fifth of Brits regularly shop in the Free From section, yet only 13% have a medical condition that requires them to avoid gluten, wheat, dairy or lactose.” It found that 35% of shoppers buy Free From for their general health, rather than to address specific ailments or intolerances. Fifty eight per cent of UK shoppers are receptive to the category, with 34% of shoppers claiming they would shop Free From more frequently if the products were cheaper. The placement of Free From products in store is an area that divides the nation: 45% of Brits would prefer to buy them from the general range while 29% enjoy the dedicated Free From section.

Increased penetration is a key growth driver. Expanding ranges and innovation have increased the number of people buying Free From. Existing shoppers are also choosing to buy these products more frequently, pushing up volume per purchaser. The average Free From shopper will have purchased Free From products 12 times in 2017, as opposed to ten times in 2016.

Sainsbury’s was a standout performer in 2017, with 14% of the market and its own-label Deliciously FreeFrom range, which grew to include more than 100 products. It became the first supermarket to launch freshly baked gluten-free bread in 2017 – a product now available in 188 of its in-store bakeries. Tesco has gained a massive 25% stake with its extensive own-label range and was named Retailer of the Year at the Free From Awards in 2017. Even a smaller player like M&S (3.9% market share) has added 54 products to its Made Without range where sales are up 36% year on year. Own-label Free From sales grew by 55.4% in 2017, though brands still have 73% of the market.


Two changes in legislation

Under the EU regulations that came into effect in 2012, only foods that contain less than 20 parts of gluten in a million will be allowed to use the term ‘gluten free’ on their packaging. Previously, a food labelled ‘gluten free’ could have contained up to ten times more than this.

In addition, some foods made using cereals that have been specially processed to remove most of the gluten, but which contain less than 100 parts of gluten in a million, will be able to make the claim ‘very low gluten’ on the packaging. These include substitutes of certain staple foods such as bread.

The EU’s Food Information to Consumers regulation came into force in 2014. All eating-out establishments must be able to inform their customers as to whether any of the 14 major allergens are contained in their foods. This change has been described as a “massive opportunity” for food service suppliers by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, founder of the Free From Food Awards.

For more information


In 2015, Free From guidelines were jointly issued by the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation. Although voluntary, they provide a useful set of core principles which allow a Free From claim to be made on-pack.