The Grocer’s 2017 Top Products Survey, THE definitive guide to the current state of the UK’s grocery industry

Six years since Gwyneth Paltrow declared she was going gluten-free, dairy-free (and arguably humour-free), the free-from trend has snowballed. No longer a celebrity fad, this category brought in a whopping £929.6m over the past year as sales shot up by 18.7%.

And 2017 was the year free-from officially went mainstream. According to Kantar Worldpanel figures, 78% of shoppers have bought into the category at some point. Mainstream brands and retailers are now queuing up to get involved. Premier Foods launched free-from versions of its Mr Kipling range (see Top Launch), pasta giant Barilla went gluten-free and even brands that are naturally free-from such as Tilda basmati rice are highlighting their gluten-free credentials on pack. Plus, brands that were designed specifically for the free-from category such as Nakd have taken on a mass market appeal. Retailers are responding with larger, more prominent free-from aisles and, particularly in the case of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, some impressive own-brand ranges.

Despite all this change, the shopper motivation driving the category remains the same: health. Gwyneth’s claimed health benefits of a free-from diet were largely rubbished as it emerged many gluten-free products were higher in fat than standard alternatives, but that hasn’t put an end to the halo effect. ‘Lifestylers’ make up the majority in terms of shopper numbers, rather than those with a medical intolerance and allergy. “Shoppers are increasingly looking at ways to eat ‘clean’ - and one way to do that is to cut out certain ingredients from their diets,” says Matt Lee, MD at shopper media agency Capture. In response, free-from brands are upping their game to ensure there is substance behind those healthy perceptions.

In October, category leader Alpro launched a Plain Unsweetened No Sugars Big Pot and a Mango Big Pot with more fruit and no added sugar. The innovations came hot on the heels of its new dairy-free ice cream with 30% less sugar than standard fare - a move cannily targeted to appeal to today’s health-conscious consumer. “We know choice and variety are the key drivers for today’s health-conscious shopper,” says Vicky Upton, head of marketing at Alpro UK and Ireland. “In addition, these shoppers seek great-tasting, versatile products that fit in with their busy lifestyles and tick the ‘wellness’ box too.”

Less well-known brands are also at it. As a free-from brand that specialises in ‘wickedly indulgent puds’, Freaks of Nature doesn’t sound like a particularly virtuous choice. Yet its cheesecakes contain less than 20g of sugar per 100g (most are above the 20g mark) and the company is focusing on driving this down further by 2020 in line with Public Health England guidelines.

The strategy seems to be working so far. Many of the names that have incorporated health messaging into their marketing, such as Alpro, Eat Natural and Koko, have enjoyed double-digit growth, and 18 of the top 20 free-from brands have seen some uplift over the past year.

But there is a question mark over how long this party can continue. As Capture’s Matt Lee points out, the targeting of health-conscious shoppers is becoming almost ubiquitous in the category. “The use of all-natural ingredients, or ‘dairy-free’ or ‘gluten-free’ claims, is allowing brands and retailers to drive relevance among a much wider shopper base than they once were,” he says. “As more brands and retailers signify this, there is a risk that these claims will lose their gravitas and, ultimately, their USP.”

Plus, there could be an emerging battleground between retailers and brands. Supermarkets are aggressively pushing their own free-from credentials; Sainsbury’s has grown its Deliciously Free From range to over 100 products, Tesco’s market-leading offering has won awards, and M&S added 54 new lines to its Made Without repertoire.

Own label has delivered £27.2m of the sector’s overall growth of £146.6m. That’s the seventh-biggest own-label gain of the year and the third biggest overall growth of any food or drink category. At the moment, brands are seeing these efforts as a complementary driver of the category rather than a threat, but this could all change if growth becomes more scarce.


Free-from is no fad. As sales thunder upwards towards the £1bn mark, more and more Brits are opting to buy gluten, wheat, grain, lactose and dairy-free products not because of medical need but as a lifestyle choice. Indeed, our own research revealed in August that 43% of Brits now say they are buying free-from goods on a regular basis. That’s up from just 19% in 2014 [Harris Interactive].

Innovation will be key to ensuring the category maintains its momentum, says gluten-free brand Schär. The brand has launched five new products over the past year that tap wider trends - including deli-style sourdough and soft waffles for the increasing number of brunch enthusiasts. Schär believes offering gluten-free consumers the same choices as the wider public will ensure new and repeat business. Its speciality breads, for example, have yielded a 188% increase in year-on-year sales - helping to drive its overall 35.5% brand growth.

“This demonstrates that gluten-free consumers are demanding more diversity,” says Roger Harrop, lead category manager at Schär. “Addressing our customer demand for premium, speciality products, our new deli-style sourdough bread and deli-style seeded loaf are made using artisanal techniques and quality ingredients, resulting in a superior taste.”

Tapping wider trends has certainly worked out for Nature Valley, whose protein bar range has made it the fastest-growing product line in the top 20. The brand has registered over 700% growth over the past year to be worth nearly £12m, as fitness addicts look for a protein hit combined with free-from credentials. As more mainstream products such as these crop up, it may be that an increasing number move out from the dedicated free-from aisle.

“Free-from is now a destination aisle that we believe brands and retailers can make more of to inspire shoppers,” says Capture’s Lee. “However, we are also seeing that free-from products are no longer confined to the free-from bays in store. Rather, they’re interspersed throughout.”

Indeed, Alpro has partnered with Sainsbury’s and Tesco to develop chilled free-from fixtures that sit alongside the dairy aisles. If canny merchandising and innovation continue at the same pace, the free-from market looks set to easily surpass the £1bn mark next year. From gluten-free sourdough to dairy-free cheesecakes and sugar-free yoghurts, there is certainly plenty to tempt shoppers into the market - and innovation is still coming thick and fast. For example, in the past two months, Nairn’s launched a new range of flatbreads and Birds Eye unveiled gluten-free chicken nuggets and fish fingers.

So don’t expect this trend to go anywhere soon. Gwyneth would be proud.


mr kipling gluten free

Mr Kipling’s gluten-free by Premier Foods

Back in April, Premier Foods gave the iconic Mr Kipling’s cherry bakewell a free-from makeover. The launch of the gluten-free mini versions - along with three gluten-free loaf cakes - confirmed free-from had officially gone mainstream. In the space of six months, the range racked up an impressive £500,000 in retail sales. The results spurred on the launch of three Mr Kipling gluten-free slice variants in September, of which chocolate brownies have emerged as an early favourite.

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