Big demand for ‘free from’ food

Ray Ryan looks at the rising demand for gluten-free and other specialist foods, which Bord Bia says is a prime market for Irish food producers.

Today is International Coeliac Day which raises public awareness of a disease that could be affecting as many as 70m people worldwide.

It follows an Awareness Week in Ireland, held by the Coeliac Society with Knorr as sponsor. It highlighted the disease and the needs of the coeliac community here with a programme of over 20 different events countrywide.

The events also helped to focus on the efforts being made by the agri food industry in Ireland to develop products that are gluten free and suitable for coeliacs.

People with the disease have a lifetime reaction to gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye, and must be careful about what they eat, especially when dining out.

There is a reasonably good awareness of the disease in Ireland where there are an estimated 46,000 coeliacs.

For the past 46 years, the Coeliac Society of Ireland has been providing information to people with the condition and helping them to live life to the full.

The society has also beeen raising wider public awareness of the disease. Major supermarkets now stock more gluten-free products. Restaurants are becoming more aware of it and consumers have a wider choice of guten-free food products. New market information from Bord Bia has also suggested that significant export opportunities exist for Irish food producers operating in the gluten free market.

It recently presented research to over 20 businesses including Brennans Bread and Goodness Grains for key target gluten-free markets, Britain, Sweden, Spain and Russia.

Presentations by Bord Bia, Kantar Worldpanel and YouGov were delivered with a view to exploring export opportunities in these areas. This research, as guided by industry demand, was Bord Bia’s first time briefing companies on the gluten-free sector.

This summer, along with seven Irish food companies, it will participate for the first time at the Free From Food Expo in Amsterdam, the leading health trade show in Europe.

While the growth in “free from” foods is primarily due to the greater awareness and diagnosis of food allergies, the desire for a healthy lifestyle is the key driver across all of the markets that Bord Bia analysed.

Orla Donohoe, Bord Bia’s bakery sector manager, said products catering for food intolerances are becoming increasingly mainstream.

“Health for many people is now more about a natural and balanced food intake rather than ‘diets’ and calorie control and this is driving market growth.

The wider ‘free from’ market is one of the few categories growing at this pace across Europe and where the branded route to market is as viable an option as private label,” she said.

Bord Bia has devised a programme for food companies targeting the gluten free marketplace, including individual company mentoring, market visits to Sweden and Spain and a further investigation into opportunities in Russia.

In September, Bord Bia will also undertake a study into the Irish ‘free from’ market, while market visits for companies will take place to Sweden and Spain.

Ms Donohoe said understanding the consumer is critical to developing business in export markets. Exporters need to have a strong brand and innovative products which deliver on taste and quality.

Bord Bia will be following up on these research projects in the coming months by assisting potential exporters in developing market entry strategies, she said.

In Ireland, the gluten-free category is valued at €29m, with sales of €40m projected by 2020. An estimated 1% of the population has coeliac disease — higher than anywhere else in Europe.

Britain’s gluten free market is valued at £438m, increasing by 36% in the last year. According to YouGov, a quarter of British households are affected by food sensitivities.

Gluten-free is continuing to attract new shoppers as choices broaden and product ranges improve significantly. Some 10% of the UK population is cutting down on gluten while a further 8% would like to do so.

However, two thirds of those trying to cut down on gluten do not have any sensitivity to it.

While there has been an explosion in the market for ‘free from’ foods in Britain, 33% simply avoid foods they are intolerant of, indicating there is potential for market innovation.

Children’s products also offer an opportunity in Britain with almost 40% (39%) of parents now buying ‘free from’ products, up from 28% in 2014.

Nearly half of parents (48%) agree there are not enough suitable products specially designed for children with intolerances.

In Britain, gluten free products are on average 27% more expensive than equivalent food and drink products with shoppers willing to pay the premium price. Branded products currently account for over 70% of spend in the category.

There is double digit growth from the majority of categories. Bakery and morning goods are growing at 20% annually. Over £6m in value switched into ‘free from’ bakery over gluten alternatives in the last year.

In Sweden, one in 10 people avoid eating gluten and the market for gluten-free baked products in particular has increased by 23% since 2014, with crisp breads and fresh breads driving growth.

The Swedish market has also developed some innovative ways of delivering solutions with several retailers offering home deliveries of gluten-free only products, while some restaurants also offer chef cooked meals delivered direct to the customer’s door.

Consumer trends such as health and a demand for premium products, are also driving demand in Russia. The value of the gluten free market here is €82m and this has doubled in size since 2009.

In Spain, gluten-free sales have exceeded expectations in growing to €78m, despite the economic recession in that country. It is estimated that around one in 150 Spaniards suffer from coeliac disease.


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