Free From FAQ’s

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 allergic or an intolerance.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is usually defined as a specific response by the immune system to a substance which it mistakenly believes to be harmful. The Food Standards Agency requires that the presence of 12 specific allergens is highlighted on product labels. These are:

  • cereals containing gluten
  • crustaceans, mollusks and fish
  • eggs
  • peanuts
  • nuts
  • soybeans
  • 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, which 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 would indicate 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)


Products made without sugar (sucrose) such as jam and chocolate appear less popular than in the past.

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

In 2012 Mintel estimated the current size of the UK Free From market as around £519m million per year at retail, up 15.5% year-on-year. Mintel anticipate that sales will increase by 56% by 2016. Growth is driven both by new shoppers and by existing shoppers buying more. Brands account for 78.4% of free-from and are in growth. Own label is growing ahead of the market at 16.2% year-on-year. Asda own-label  has experienced growth of 78.2% year-on-year and is now the third largest own-label range after Tesco and Sainsbury’s. The US free-from market is currently worth $2.64 billion at retail, and has grown 30% since 2006.

Growth is coming from “restricters”  rather than allergic or intolerant consumers. Up to 40% of UK shoppers currently buy into free-from, on average purchasing them seven times a year and spending £2.58 per trip. One in 10 consumers say they will avoid certain foods to be on the safe side.

Recent celebrity endorsement of free-from diets seems likely to drive further growth. Public figures such as Kim Kardashian, Victoria Beckham, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chelsea Clinton and Rachel Weisz have extolled the virtues of a gluten free diet. Novak Djokovich attributed his improved performance to avoiding gluten. Andy Murray and Andrew Steele have also switched to gluten-free diets.

In 2010 the Grocer reported that the entry of Genius fresh gluten-free bread has revolutionised the Free From sector. “Previously considered too niche to support fresh products with short shelf-lives, the free-from category has sprung to life.” In the last year larger brands such as Warburtons have responded by launching their own gluten-free lines which has created “extra impetus and created some dynamic competition” says James Hodgson, Waitrose buying manager. Genius has responded by launching first fresh rolls and then a full range of breads and moring goods including pies, pastries, naan breads, pain au chocolate and croissants. It faces significant competition from Warburtons which has invested £5.25m in the sector. This has helped grow the gluten-free bread market by a further 14.5% in the last year to £54.9m (Kantar). The latest major brand to enter the Free From market is Heinz, with a range of three gluten-free pastas and three gluten-free sauces.

According to Kantar World Panel dairy has overtaken bakery as the category’s biggest sector with a 21.6% value share of the market, compared with bakery’s 21.3%. Annual sales of dairy and lactose-free products are now around £132m (Nielsen) as the market continues to attract shoppers who do not have an intolerance to dairy but view vegetable-based products as a healthier alternative. The dairy-free sector is dominated by a few large players such as Alpro (Deans Foods) and Lactofree (Arla).

The growth in the Free From market has sparked a debate amongst retailers and suppliers as to whether Free From is ready to be dispersed around the store or whether it should remain within the current dedicated Free From fixtures. Tesco are already placing Nak’d bars on ladder racks on the mainstream snack fixture. The lesson from Fairtrade and Organic is that such a move is inevitable and that in the long-term sales will benefit as wider-range of shoppers are exposed to Free From products as part of their regular weekly shop

Talking at the FDIN September 2011 Free From Conference David Jago of Mintel has called for more NPD in the market, citing free-from meal solutions and pizzas as potential areas for growth. In response there have been launches in this sector from Stewed, Amy’s Kitchen, Georgia’s Choice and Pasta JuliaTalking at the same conference free-from guru Michelle Berriedale-Johnson pointed out that foodservice remains  a huge untapped market for free-from foods, with Coeliac UK valuing this sector at about £100m.

Changes In Legislation

Under the new European Union regulations which came into effect on January 1st 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.

Industry sources have expressed concern that 20ppm gluten will prove to be an unworkably low level and that either products will be withdrawn from sale or gluten-free claims will be dropped. Already one major supplier of lentils has advised their customers that henceforth their products should not be described as gluten-free because of the risk of cross contamination.