Fad or real need: UK research aims to get behind 'free from' foods trend

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Leatherhead food research Allergy

New research is hoping to determine whether the rising demand for ‘free from’ foods is driven by a real need or a fad, while also identifying the potential opportunities for food and drink makers.

UK based Leatherhead Food Research said it is aiming to identify consumption patterns, perceptions and motivations for consuming ‘suitable-for’​ products through a new project that will involve Europe-wide consumer surveys and in-depth telephone interviews with manufacturers and retailers.

The completion date is December this year, with the project set to kick-start this month.

But Leatherhead said these collaborative projects are essentially pre-competitive and thus allow a number of interested parties to participate and share the cost of the research project:

“A minimum number of participants are required to fund the research. Participants that sign up by 30 September 2011 will be entitled to add two proprietary questions to the survey,” ​added the consultancy.

Demand for food and drink products suitable for consumption by people with specific allergies and intolerances is reportedly on the rise, said Leatherhead.

At the same time, there is a growing opportunity to develop products for a population that is increasingly alert to their diet, health and well-being as consumers actively seek products that claim to be ‘suitable for’ allergies and intolerances.

While only a small proportion of the population has a clinically diagnosed allergy to food, a great deal more believe they suffer from an intolerance to certain foods, often characterised by an adverse and unpleasant physical reaction to food such as headaches, flatulence, itching and swelling.

Moreover, it is believed that there is a growing body of consumers with ‘designer disorders’ whereby reasons for consuming dairy, gluten, wheat free products are often linked to other psychological motivations such as weight loss, notes Leatherhead.

"Whether real or imagined, consumers are actively seeking out products that are ‘suitable for’ consumption by people with specific allergies and intolerances and are labelled as wheat, gluten and lactose free,"​ claim the UK researchers.

Food allergies and intolerances therefore present significant compliance challenges as well as market opportunities, said the consultancy.

“Food and drink manufacturers must comply with stringent physical processing guidelines to prevent contamination of products with ingredients known to cause allergic reactions and strict labelling requirements to inform consumers of the contents of the product and any known side-effects these are likely to have,”​ it notes.

The UK consultancy said it will analyse recent technological innovation to enable the development of certain ‘free from’ foods such as nut-free nut flavours. Regulatory insights will also form part of the project, with an assessment of the current legislative environment and labelling requirements for ‘free from’ foods in the EU and the US.

Recent figures from Kantar Worldpanel report that the UK market alone is worth £108.3m.

Nearly 600 products with a ‘suitable for’ claim including gluten-free,​ low/no/reduced allergen,low/no/reduced lactose​) were launched in the UK last year, according to data from Mintel.

The market research firm reports that the number of new ‘suitable for’ product launches has been growing at around 29 per cent per year for the last decade.

Leatherhead notes that supermarket own-brands have also made substantial investments in ‘free-from’ foods.

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