FreeFrom Foods matter – how “free from” started in the UK!
Whenever people with food allergies or intolerances travel to the UK they are hilarious about the massive choice of free from products. Instead of one shelf presenting a choice of gluten free products, UK supermarkets offer complete aisles for only gluten free bread, gluten free cereals and snacks or dairy free cheeses. How did it all happen? When the Free From Food Awards Deutschland 2016 jury meeting took place in Berlin, MeinAllergiePortal had the chance to talk to Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, “free from” food pioneer, founder of FoodsMatter and initiator of the UK Free From Foods Awards.
Michelle, you have known the Allergies and Free From Food“-community for thirty years, what are the major changes?
A tremendous amount has changed in thirty years!!! When I originally started in 1988, there was no such thing as free from food – the term had not even been invented. For people with dairy allergy there was horrible soy milk and for people with celiac disease there was one type of bread that would break your toe if you kicked it – there was virtually nothing!
By the turn of the century many people with allergies or celiac disease had started experimenting. They had to cook for themselves, simply because they could not find anything to buy. When they had developed products they and their families liked and even their friends thought they were good, they started thinking: Why don’t we start a business? This was exactly when the growth of the internet came along, so people would start tiny businesses with a little website and sell by mail order. This meant they did not have to work with retailers or distributers, but could sell directly to the public, so all these little micro businesses started up.
So the UK-‘free from” market was originally dominated by small businesses?
Absolutely, but gradually the small start up’s became bigger. One example is Doves Farm, which was started as tiny micro business by Clare Marriage because her mother was celiac but now has a multi million pound turnover.
At that point some of the big manufacturers became interested in the “free from” trend. Genius Bread, for example was developed from a domestic recipe by Finsbury Foods, who are a very big manufacturer in the UK. They then built a dedicated gluten free bakery and this was a major leap forward. It was the first time one could get a gluten free supermarket bread, which means a packaged sliced bread with a two week shelf life, which would compare to an ordinary supermarket bread.
Over the years the UK market has changed enormously, from a tiny 100.000 £ “free from” market to – according to the latest forecasts – a half a billion £ turnover “free from” market by next year. Within the food industry, a very traditional industry which does not expand very much, the “free from” area is the one area which is still continuing to grow year by year.
Which factors are driving growth for the “free from” market?
Within the UK and also within the American market the number of people with food allergies and celiac disease is growing. This means “free from” is becoming part of the genuine market.
In addition there are all those people with self-diagnosed food problems. They might not ever have undergone medical testing, but they feel much better, when they are following a gluten free, dairy free etc. diet.
But the biggest “free from” growth area is the people who are choosing to live “free from” because they think it’s healthier, it fits into their lifestyle and their ethical approach to life, be that sustainability, food miles or animal. This is a very significant growth area!
So now, in the UK, many of the seriously big manufacturers are looking seriously at freefrom. When they looked at their product portfolio, they found that a large numbers of their products were naturally gluten free, dairy free, fructose free etc., so this gave them a new marketing angle. For example Nestlé and Kellogg’s both have gluten free cereals now! In the case of corn flakes, corn is naturally gluten free so this is not a major innovation, but, to be able to market the product as ‘freefrom’ all manufacturers do have to ensure that the product is contamination free.
Manufacturers argue, that consumers often cannot tell whether a product is naturally “free from” or not….
Well, if they claim an apple as gluten free it sounds ridiculous to me and I would consider this a silly claim.
But there are a so many manufactured products, where there is a really small amount of allergen to be replaced. Maybe the manufacturer used a thickener or some dairy ingredient, which is not really crucial to the product and can easily be removed.
From a manufacturers point of view it’s worth their while looking at their product portfolio and making that small change to the recipe and then they can claim them to be “free from”. This is a powerful marketing tool, as long as it is in a sensible context. The virtue of this development is, that it is continuously increasing the number of “free from” products available in the market, which is god for people who genuinely need it.
Fortunately the regulation is quite strict, so manufacturers cannot just apply a gluten free flasher without making sure the product genuinely is gluten free.
And “free from” products do have a better margin…
“Free from” food certainly has a better margin. There is an issue about the price of “free from” products, because they are significantly more expensive than “non free from” food. Sometimes a higher price is justified, sometimes it’s not.
In the case of making bread, for example, it is much more difficult to make “free from” bread than baking regular bread. You need different ingredients and these ingredients are more expensive. The processes are more difficult, because contamination has to be strictly avoided and subsequently safety regulations are stricter. Also, the failure rate is much higher for free from bread because you are dealing with much less stable ingredients, so there genuinely are good reasons why “free from” bread should be more expensive.
But then there are other areas like, for example, tomato ketchup, which is by definition gluten free and dairy free but nevertheless is charged at twice the price of regular tomato ketchup, when it carries a ”free from” label. Maybe the manufacturer had to do a bit more testing for possible contamination but this does not justify such a high price.
How did you start your own free from initiative “FreeFrom matters”?
Very originally, when there was absolutely nothing in the market, I started manufacturing “free from” foods. This was back in 1990 when nobody really thought about “free from”.
Then I started a newsletter which turned into a magazine addressing health professionals. I wanted to bring food intolerances to the attention of doctors, dieticians, alternative practitioners, complementary practitioners, pharmacists etc., because it was not really recognized. Then I realized that it was going to take a long time to persuade health professionals and that our efforts would be better spent supporting the patients so we moved to a patient subscription magazine. We also had a tiny website but in the 1990 the internet was far from being as popular as today!
By 2008 things had changed and the internet was huge, so we finally stopped the magazine and concentrated on the website. The topics we cover are food allergy and intolerance, celiac disease, skin diseases, free from products, raw foods, free from recipes and supplements. At about the same time, we started the FreeFrom Food Awards and in the following years we also developed awards for restaurants, the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards and skin products, the FreeFrom Skincare Awards.
FreeFrom matters is also testing “free from” products …
People are very interested in new “free from” products. This is why one section of the site is devoted to new foods. We also do product reviews and we have a running news feed on new “free from” products. In addition we have big directories of all the manufacturers in all the different areas. There is also a FreeFrom matters newsletter.
Another feature is Dr. Janice Joneja’s consultation on histamine intolerance which is very popular. We are just turning her articles into an e-book and are planning the same for our more than 800 “free from” recipes. .
So you initiated the free from food trend in the UK?
We started very early and there was not too much going on for many years, but this has changed now. The UK now has a very active “free from” blogger scene, just as the US. Many of them are judges in our award juries.
Would you expect the same development in Germany?
I do not see any reason why the development should not go into the same direction in Germany as in the UK and the US. Of course things will be slightly different because your taste is different from ours in terms of products.
America is obsessed by gluten free but there is not as much interest in other issues such as food allergies or intolerances, but it is increasing. For example, nut milks have become very big in the US, also as part of a reaction against the dairy industry. A lot of the free from trend has to do with reactions against something, like over intensive farming, monocultures, fructose, sugar etc..
Which role did the health food stores play for the development of the “free from” food market?
In the UK, the health food stores did not really play nearly as big a role as they should have done. When the trend started with all those small businesses, the health food stored did get kind of left behind. It was not until in the last two years, that Holland & Barrett, the big UK health food chain, has finally gotten on board.
Did the UK-health system have an impact on the “free from” food scene?
I think the regulatory authorities in Bruxelles and in the UK had a more important influence. The regulations were important because they put a structure in place that any manufacturer producing “free from” food has to abide to. I do not think that any of the government initiatives have really focused on “free from” food.
It’s different with the Food Information Regulation for unpackaged food - about 70 % of the UK food services businesses are not compliant. At the same time, other food services realized that there is a market out there and they see “free from” as a marketing tool, just as the big manufacturers did.
Michelle, thank you so much für this Interview!
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