Last week was seriously conference heavy with the Food and Drink Innovation Network‘s seminar on FreeFrom food on Thursday and an excellent conference on electrosensitivity organised by ES-UK (on which, more anon) on Saturday.
I was chairing the FDIN conference at which many of our close colleagues (and some sponsors of this year’s awards) were speakers, so I was particularly pleased that it was very well attended, and that the attendees appeared to find it so useful and enjoyable and that a number of them asked for the subject to be covered again very soon. The FDIN format devotes the morning to an overview of the subject matter of the conference (facts and figures/market research) and any technical stuff that needs to be covered (on this occasion, legislation/regulation for freefrom and the nutritional background) and the afternoon to case studies – all interspersed with ample opportunities for networking.
It was particularly interesting (and gratifying as far as I was concerned) that my overview of where freefrom was going, and could go, tallied almost exactly with the trends identified by Mintel‘s David Jago and by Julia Horlov of McCallum Layton who had done some very interesting qualitative research on people’s attitudes to freefrom and on the experiences of those who need to shop freefrom.
Right at the beginning of her presentation Julia highlit one of the most signficant changes which have occurred over the last five years. To her surprise, when her team went out in the street to talk to people about freefrom, they had absolutely no difficulty in finding people to talk to who either had personal experience of living and shopping freefrom, or who knew someone who had. Five years ago, when I chaired the first freefrom FDIN seminar, the market researchers really struggled to find interviewees and we were finally reduced to calling on volunteers from the subscribers to the Foods Matter magazine.
To, very briefly, cover the trends that we all identified – if you would like to delve more deeply, you can read my overview of the past and future of freefrom here – and all of the other presentations on the FDIN site.
• The freefrom sector is continuing to buck the recession, growing at between 8% and 10% per year.
• While around 10% of the population now buy freefrom because they need to, up to 40%of the population occasionally/regularly buy freefrom because they choose to.
• Although the number of those with a medical condition which requires them to eat ‘freefrom’ (coeliacs, allergics etc) is growing the real expansion in the market has come from those who ‘choose’ to eat freefrom as they perceive gluten-free and dairy-free foods to be healthier/better for them.
• That if the quality and variety of freefrom food and its availability continue to improve as they have done over the last few years, and if the price can be brought more into line with non-freefrom food, there is a good chance that freefrom food could become totally mainstream.
• That there is a huge opportunity for freefrom manufacturers in the catering/food service/restaurant trade. Outlets (restaurants, cafés, pubs, hotels etc) that can offer a good and safe freefrom meal will attract not only the allergic/freefrom customer but the three or four other people that they would be eating with.
The two other fact-finding presentations were from Mike Bromley of FreeFrom Food Awards sponsor, Genon Laboratories and from nutritionist Micki Rose who many will know from her contributions to the FoodsMatter sites.
Mike described the tryingly sparse amount of regulation covering freefrom, flagging up the desperate need of the industry for ‘thresholds’ – the amount of allergen which is going to cause an allergic person to react. As of now, the only allergen for which a ‘threshold’ has been set is gluten – the EU now follows the Codex Alimentarius guidance in setting 20 parts per million as the maximum amount of gluten that a food can contain in order to be called ‘gluten free’. But there is no guidance (because neither scientists nor medic.s have been able to discover what that level is) for milk, nuts, eggs, soy or any of the other major allergens. This makes life very difficult for manufacturers. Mike also described the testing processes and the complexities involved when the allergenicity of an allergen can be affected by whether it is raw or cooked, how it has been cooked and what it has been cooked or processed with….. For example, the allergenicity of nuts could be affected by the fattiness of chocolate and it appears that roasted peanuts may be more allergenic than boiled or raw peanuts.
Micki Rose then set manufacturers a high bar by describing the nourishing, healthy ingredients that she would like to see in freefrom foods (flax seeds, puréed or dried fruits and vegetables, mixed nuts and seeds, coconut and olive oil, arrowroot and potato starch, honey and agave syrup) that would help those who either needed or choose freefrom diets to regain or improve their health.
The afternoon’s freefrom case studies were enlighteningly diverse and gave the audience an excellent overview of how four very different companies had set about the business of making and selling freefrom food.
• Jeremy Woods, MD of Mrs Crimble’s (also a sponsor of this year’s FFFood Awards) described how Mrs Crimble’s freefrom cakes have, in less than ten years, come to be ranked as the UK’s second largest healthy bakery brand (after WeightWatchers) and in the top ten most popular cakes in the UK – based on the company’s core belief that the products they make should be delicious and wholesome, and just happen, also, to be gluten free.
• Joe Callery of Celtic Chocolates came from Dublin to describe how the conventional after dinner mints that he and his partner started to make in 1990 developed first into diabetic Easter eggs, then into dairy-free dark chocolate eggs, and then finally into his hugely successful dairy-free milk chocolate range (using rice syrups and starches to replace the dairy) which he now makes into bars and filled caramels for all the major supermarkets as well as for his own brand, Choices.
• Charlotte Pike of GoFreeFoods (winner of the brownie category in last year’s FreeFrom Food Awards) described how she and her boyfriend (who suffers from a number of food intolerances) started GoFreeFoods while she was still working full time as an investment analyst and he as a systems designer. Only full time on GoFreeFoods for the last six months, it has been a hard slog and involved many more late nights and far more red tape than she could ever have anticipated – but it is going well and they are now ready to develop new products and move on to stage two…
• Finally, Lesley Cutts of GoodnessDirect, the very first and still by far the largest on-line retailer of freefrom foods, described how Goodness Foods came to be involved in freefrom food and how they now help to develop brands and give the smaller, specialist manufacturers access to a wider market.
A fascinating day – and thank you to FDIN for setting up the seminar.