Sainsbury's confirm their commitment to 'freefrom' with a major relaunch and re-branding exercise
Michelle Berriedale-Johnson looks at Sainsbury's involvement with freefrom over the years.
Sainsbury's are no newcomers to 'freefrom'. Indeed, although they were not the first supermarket to stock freefrom goods (Tesco beat them by a few months) they were the first to bite the bullet and offer an own label freefrom range – and not just an ambient range either. They were the first (and remain the only) supermarket to offer own label frozen freefrom foods as well as the inevitable range of cakes and biscuits.
In one of our first freefrom product reviews (Foods Matter magazine August 2002) we noted that 'the new Sainsbury's freefrom range has taken off in not uncertain fashion. Biscuits, cake bars, pastas, fish fingers, sausage, one pot meals. All so far are gluten and wheat free but Sainsbury's have, thank goodness, taken note that many of their target market may be multi-allergic so a respectable number of products are also dairy free....'
And in September 2002: 'This month we sat four teenage boys down to platefuls of Sainsbury's freefrom gluten, wheat and dairy-free frozen fish fingers, pork sausages and chicken nuggets...' All items still to be found in the Sainsbury's offer.
Since then freefrom has had a somewhat chequered career at Sainsbury's, as at all of the major supermarkets, as enthusiastic and less enthusiastic buyers have come and gone and focus has shifted on - and off - special diets. The last few years has shown relatively little activity – maybe even Sainbury's lost heart when faced with their depressingly awful yellow packaging... But 2010 is to see all that change!
2010 – onwards and upwards!
The decision to focus fully once more on freefrom was taken in the late spring of 2009 – so the team has actually done a remarkable job in creating over 30 totally new products, revamping of 50 existing lines and redesigning/repackaging the whole lot in under nine months.
According to Natalie McCreesh, the senior product developer on freefrom, the revamp of the range was part of Sainsbury's new focus on all special diets (allergies, kosher. diabetic, vegetarian, vegan etc) and their desire to ensure that these diets were well represented in their one thousand top lines. Part of this initiative is store wide – removing unnecessary allergens (that tiny bit of whey powder at the bottom of an otherwise dairy-free ingredients list) in all foods, not just freefrom. But part is a conscious attempt to look after freefrom customers who they recognise as being a loyal group who, if happy with the freefrom offer, will do all their shopping in a Sainsbury's store.
Within the freefrom range the focus is on gluten and wheat (all products are gluten and wheat free) but wherever possible, Sainsbury's aim to make them dairy free as well. The main criterion however, is not how many allergens the product is free-from, but what it tastes like. Natalie emphasises that it is simply not always possible to make an exact freefrom replica of a standard product, but they aim for what they call a 'fair equivalent'. They also aim, where possible, to keep sugar, fat and salt levels low but admit that, in order to maintain flavour in the absence of dairy and wheat, they still sometimes use higher levels than,ideally, they would.
Although Natalie welcomes approaches and product suggestions from suppliers, most idea generation is done by her department. Usually her team will ask suppliers to work on specific product ideas, but on occasion they have been known to get into the test kitchens themselves.
However, as Simon Hinks, the senior food technologist working on the new range points out, developing free from food products is a whole different ball game from 'normal' food manufacture. Quite apart from the food safety and legal requirements which cover all food manufacture, there is the massively complex business of not only monitoring and testing allergen control within the factory but all the way back down the supply chain as far as the field in which the food was grown. This may be relatively simple when you are dealing with a single ingredient product, like their new gluten-free oats, but in some products there could be as many as 30 ingredients and each of those has to be checked for allergens right back to its source. Not surprising that they need a whole separate food safety team who deal with nothing but freefrom.
Moreover, Sainsbury's are aiming high. Although the gluten level for coeliac products has now been set by Codex Alimentarius (the WHO and FAO body governing food standards worldwide) at 20 parts per million, they are aiming for no background residues at all of gluten, wheat or dairy in any of their freefrom products. Of course, once all manufacturing units are dedicated gluten/dairy-free facilities, this will become easier but they are still a long way from that.
Small acting big...
Although there are now a few larger manufacturers moving into freefrom, the vast majority are still small, some of them very small indeed - just one or two people. Dealing with the legal technicalities, allergen risk elimination, packaging, on-pack nutritional and allergen information etc etc is a major struggle for many of the smaller manufacturers so Simon's team goes much further than they would normally in offering support and practical help to get their products and the manufacturing processes up the levels required. And this is not just Sainsbury's being nice. At the moment, freefrom manufacturers are in a vendors market. There are a still relatively few of them able to fulfil a supermarket's complex requirements, but there are half a dozen supermarkets all wanting to expand their freefrom offer. So it is certainly in Sainsbury's interest to ensure that their freefrom manufacturers have good reason to stay with them.
Technical difficulties – testing, testing, testing...
By definition, freefrom products, especially if you are aiming for viable replacement for 'normal' products, present a whole range of manufacturing problems to get texture and taste to an acceptable and consistent level. This means a much greater input in development terms than would be needed for a standard product both in getting the original recipe right and then in scaling it up to industrial production levels.
For example, a developer would expect to need three trial runs to get the basic recipe for a 'normal' product right and then the factory would expect to do six to eight trial manufacturing runs on the the scaled up product. For freefrom, you may need at least six goes at the original recipe to get it right and then 10 to 12 scaled up trials. For the new Sainsbury's jam tarts (it is just a jam tart after all....) they needed 16 trial runs before they were happy with the scaled up version! Mind you, they do maintain that the resulting jam tarts are, without doubt, the best jam tarts that you are ever likely to taste, freefrom or otherwise! We can't wait!
Along with the range development has gone a total redesign of the packaging – vastly improved – with good clear allergen labelling. Although they do still use the barred wheat sheaf on the back of packs for gluten free products, all products are clearly labelled, in text, gluten, wheat and (if appropriate) dairy free on the front of the pack – a much better system than the previous icons which I felt could always easily have been misunderstood.
Back up info
At the same time, Special Diets Manager, Philippa Brightman and her team have completed overhauled the Sainsbury allergen lists, combining some to cater for multiple allergics – coeliac and milk, egg and nut and gluten and vegetarian – and these can now all be downloaded as pdfs from the freefrom section of the site (www.sainsburys.co.uk/freefrom). Also on offer is nutritional advice for those on restricted diets, help with understanding labelling and lots of freefrom tried and tested recipes. A special 'knowledge team' has also been trained to man the Customer Careline on 0800 636 262 on freefrom so as to be able to answer any queries about the range and direct callers to appropriate sources of help for dietary problems.
The first launch of the new range coincides with Indoor Allergy Week (25-29th January), the second phase will happen at the end of February with, we hope, on-going development thereafter.
First Published in Janury 2010