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A matter of health

Bucking the general recessional trend, the freefrom food market (i.e. food free from at least one of a number of ingredients such as gluten, dairy, wheat, sugar or egg) is on an upward trajectory with sales expected to almost double from £303million this year to £591million by 2016 (Mintel). Fuelled by dramatic increases both in the number of people suffering from food allergy or intolerance and those who are choosing to go gluten or dairy free, this is a market sector that nobody in the catering sector can afford to ignore

Freefrom products from Warburtons, Arla and KerryIt wasn’t that long ago that ‘freefrom’ was seen as faddy and relevant only for a tiny minority. Today’s growing number of people who are either intolerant to certain foods or choose not to eat them on grounds of health means that freefrom has moved on from what was perceived as ‘weird’ and ‘niche’ to become very much mainstream.

Today, all major supermarkets have designated freefrom areas, while investment by other major players during the last 18 months alone includes the following:

EC caught up with Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, the doyenne of the freefrom arena, who not only organises the annual FreeFrom Food Awards, but also runs several websites covering the gamut of freefrom including information, tips and recipes (see below for addresses).

EC: How did you get into freefrom?

MBJ: 25 years ago my son and his father were both diagnosed as dairy intolerant. Back then there were only about three dairy-free products on the market – and they all tasted disgusting! Being a foodie (I had previously run a catering business, was a food historian and I also wrote cookery books), I thought I could do better so we started manufacturing: dairy-free ice cream; dairy, gluten and egg-free frozen ready meals and dairy-free chocolate.

We managed to get into all the major supermarkets but unfortunately in those days freefrom wasn’t selling how it is now and there simply wasn’t enough money in it to survive.

So we stopped making food and started a magazine instead. Initially for health professionals and then, from the late 1990s, a monthly subscription magazine for allergy/intolerance sufferers. Since 2009 the magazine has been entirely on line at www.foodsmatter.com

Freefrom paella from La TascaSpanish tapas bar and kitchen, La Tasca, not only has a good selection of gluten-free dishes on its menu, it also serves Estrella Damm Daura - winner of the World’s Best Gluten Free Lager category at last year’s World Beer AwardsEC: Why do you think freefrom has developed from being virtually unknown just a few years ago to where it is today?

MBJ: For several reasons. First, there has been a significant increase in the number of diagnosed coeliacs and allergy sufferers. This has resulted in heavy lobbying by patient support organisations such as Allergy UK, Coeliac UK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign.
There has also been a rapid growth both in the number of self-diagnosed intolerance sufferers who ‘feel better’ on a gluten-free/dairy-free diet and people who feel that gluten/dairy-free food is a ‘healthier’ option. This is part of a lifestyle choice and ties in with the move to organic, free trade, low food miles, ethical production, craft food manufacture, slow food and so on.

The food industry itself has played a big part in the growth of freefrom. Supermarkets especially have been instrumental in the growth of the sector as they now offer decent freefrom options making it easier and more attractive for consumers to opt for freefrom.

EC: What about freefrom in foodservice?

MBJ: While foodservice has definitely given a nod to freefrom, there is still plenty of room for improvement here! Bear in mind also that the growth in the number of people who need, believe that they need, or choose to eat freefrom shows no sign of abating. These people want to be able to eat out and if they can find somewhere that can cater for them safely and well, they will be very loyal customers. Going out to eat and getting a decent ‘safe’ meal remains the biggest problem for anyone on a freefrom diet.

Moreover, every freefrom person will have family and friends with whom they want to eat; feed them well and you’ll have a loyal customer. Make your freefrom offer a really good one and the whole party may choose to eat it, thereby making your life a whole lot simpler.

EC: Which are the major freefroms that foodservice should consider?

MBJ: If a chef or caterer is only able to include one freefrom on his menu, I would advise a gluten-free or wheat-free offering – most of the time this is one and the same thing, but not always. Next would come dairy free and then nut free.

EC: How do you see freefrom developing?

MBJ: If freefrom continues on its current projectory with ever-improving taste, variety, nutritional quality and availability, there is no reason why it should not become totally mainstream. Freefrom is here to stay and the potential for its growth is limitless.

FreeFrom Awards 2012

Freefrom Food Awards 2012Over 300 products were entered into the 17 categories of this year’s annual FreeFrom Awards, which were launched five years ago to celebrate the best in freefrom food.

The overall winner was the Vegusto Mild Aromatic Dairy-free cheese, which was deemed by the judges to be “a very pleasant, tasty ‘cheese’ that you could serve to anyone on a cracker or in a sandwich and they would not even notice that it was dairy free.”

Click here for a full list of winners and their contact details

Labelling legislation

Established in 1982, Swedish baker Almondy has been making gluten-free tarts for foodservice and domestic consumption for 30 years. Andrew Ely, Almondy’s managing director, advises on recent legislation in gluten-free labelling.

Almondy desserts“It is fair to say that the UK is in the grips of an explosion in demand for gluten-free food. Driven by a burgeoning number of people diagnosed as coeliac (an auto-immune disease brought on by eating a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) and buoyed by a rise in non-coeliacs choosing gluten-free products as part of a lifestyle choice, the gluten-free market has swelled to £120m and is growing rapidly, year on year. Between 2010 and 2011 alone, the gluten-free market grew by 18%.

“However, while offering gluten-free food is advisable, caterers should be aware of the legislation concerning labelling that was introduced on 1st January this year. It is no longer legal to use the term ‘suitable for coeliacs’. Now food must be labelled either ‘gluten free’ (where the level of gluten is 20mg/kg or less) or ‘very low gluten’ (where the level of gluten is 100mg/kg or less).”

While this might sound alarming, help is at hand. Visit Coeliac UK for further in-depth information about this recent legislation.

Whatever happens, don’t be put off offering gluten-free options as these will encourage more people to visit your establishment. Take time to educate yourself and your staff not only on the legislation itself, but also on gluten intolerance and what it means for sufferers.

Hoteliers missing out on millions

A recent survey, carried out by DS-gluten free, revealed that 84% of coeliacs and others following gluten and wheat-free diets currently do not have confidence that UK hotels understand what it means to be gluten free.

This was in spite of the fact that 64% of people questioned said that they call the accommodation in advance to discuss their requirements. Worse still, 56% had become ill after having eaten food that contained gluten or had been cross-contaminated. This means that coeliacs, estimated to be one in 100 people, and the growing number of people who follow gluten and wheat-free diets as a lifestyle choice, regularly pack their own food to take away and 42% would always choose self-catering accommodation.

Freefrom foodNever cross-contaminate freefrom with other foods

The good news is that 94% said that they would be more likely to stay in a hotel if the choice and quality of gluten-free food was better. Coeliac UK estimates that by not catering for this market, caterers could be missing out on up to £100m in revenue.

“According to Allergy UK, more than 45% of the population has a food allergy,” comments Michelle Shinn, brand manager at DS-gluten free, which offers a range of easy gluten-free menu solutions for the foodservice industry. “It is easy to keep some gluten-free staple products such as pasta, bread and cereal on standby and incorporate them into everyday menus. Just beware of cross-contamination.

“Hoteliers should also remember that it’s not just the restaurant that counts – little extra touches such as some gluten-free biscuits on the tea-tray in the bedroom make a real difference and show people that you are truly considering their individual needs. These simple changes could provide a hassle-free access to a potentially lucrative new market.”

Visit www.dietaryspecials.co.uk for advice and product information.

Pure Genius

Genius Foods productsThe gluten-free food company Genius Foods has launched an extended range and service delivery to foodservice, enabling outlets of any size to provide a gluten-free offering to their customers. With minimum orders of just one case, businesses small and large can seek to capitalise on this growing market.

The company can also help outlets new to gluten-free with access to food standards guidelines on how to retain product integrity. Retaining gluten-free from supply through to serve is a specific concern of people who have to avoid gluten due to health reasons.

The full range of products supplied by Genius’ Foodservice division is: sliced and unsliced white, brown and seeded bread, pitta bread, naan bread, pancakes, fruit loaf, teacakes and mince pies (seasonal).

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