Free-from diets have now become commonplace and are no longer dismissed as a fad. Their growing popularity has also coincided with reports of a growing number of allergic reactions.

While the precise cause behind this rise is unclear, and likely attributable to multiple factors, the very existence of increased allergic reactions places a new onus on the food industry to provide clarity around their production and supply.

Sound the allergen alarm: rising hospital admissions

Software as a Service (SaaS) platform Trace One recently combined data requested from healthcare trusts and central bodies across Britain with centrally-released data from the NHS. The resulting data set showed that if current trends continue, there will be almost four times as many hospital admissions for allergic reactions to food in 2040 than there were in 2015.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) lists fourteen major allergens that require identification when used as ingredients, including dairy, nuts, and gluten. Awareness of allergens has been increased since the Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU) was implemented in 2014, strengthening the process and labelling requirement in the food industry. However, the hospital admissions are still rising and their root cause is unclear.

An FSA spokesperson said: “In the last decade, the cases of food allergies have doubled and the number of hospitalisations caused by severe allergic reactions has increased 7-fold (EAACI, 2015).”

Based on hospital episode data there was a 76% increase in hospital admissions attributed to food allergies between 2005 and 2014-15. It is possible some of this is due to better data recording but there is no way of knowing.”

Production pitfalls: capturing the mainstream consumer

With many manufacturers now turning to expansion with free-from products, and retailers putting up their own free-from ranges, the former fad has become a trend. One concern is whether companies are adjusting to properly compensate for the change. Particularly in the UK, regulatory changes may be coming with the departure from the EU.

Another concern is how producers will continue to develop into a market that currently faces several key obstacles. Among the challenges is the high costs involved with specialised production and that there is still a significant number of non-users who do not consider free-from food as a healthy alternative if you aren’t suffering from any kind of allergy.

Head of UK food, drink, and foodservice research at Mintel Kiti Soininen said: “The ‘health halo’ of free-from foods is a key driver of uptake, opening up a pool of opportunity beyond actual or suspected allergy or intolerance sufferers. However, it also leaves the market exposed to the vagaries of consumer opinion. The importance of health in driving uptake also means that companies need to ensure that nutrition profiles are best in class.”

As long as free-from food still teeters on the divide between a specialist product, a fad and a genuine health alternative, it will struggle to capture the mainstream consumer. A large part of the normalisation will have to come from a price reduction and a focus on presentation as a regular health alternative that is viable for all. For now, producers are edging themselves out with the high cost of specialist production.

The ‘free-from’ business: the fad that became the future?

In a series of research projects, Trace One showed that the number of hospital admissions for serious reactions in England has grown by almost 75% in the last ten years despite the population growing by only 8%. Similarly, in Scotland, a population growth of just 5% cannot be seen to account for a 20% increase in the number of patients consulting a GP or practice nurse for a food allergy between 2004 and 2013.

EVP for global business development at Trace One Shaun Bossons said: “The rise in demand for ‘free-from’ products started in the UK but is now a trend in all industrialised countries. It has often been dismissed as a fad, with lifestyle choices rather than genuine health reasons driving the majority of purchase decisions.

“However it’s clear from our research that we are facing a huge rise in both minor and major food allergies that cannot be explained away by factors such as population growth,”

Though such a dramatic increase cannot be purely attributed to food, the emergence of a seemingly more allergic population has serious connotations for the food industry and how it approaches production and labelling. With Trace One’s research finding that the rate of hospital admissions in England due to food allergies has increased by almost 60% in the past ten years, it is vital that food companies are able to show transparency and account for their own potential part in the increase.