The free from trend is going from strength to strength as brands and retailers look for opportunities to target the needs of consumers with specialist dietary requirements.

According to GlobalData, the most popular free from diet followed by consumers in the UK is a vegetarian diet (7.4%); vegan though, is the least (2.2%). And demand for a wider variety of alternative offerings is growing, with alternative diets becoming increasingly popular in mainstream society.

In a recent report titled ‘Hot Topic: Free From’, GlobalData analysts explore the key issues, trends and success stories that have emerged from the free from movement. Using this research, we round up some of the key features of the burgeoning alternative trend.

Own label

The own-label trend has seen rapid growth since 2012 as retailers moved to cut costs in order to remain price competitive following the rise of discounters such as Aldi and Lidl. Now that the trend has become an established feature of supermarket aisles, almost every large grocer with an own-label range, has expanded its selection to offer own-label, free-from options.

Introducing free-from ranges gives retailers an opportunity to differentiate their own-label offerings from competitors. This can help to improve the reputation of the retailer and capture a more premium spend, allowing them to avoid sacrificing profits to branded suppliers whilst target a high-growth category.

With the release of own-label vegan and free-from ready meals, on-the-go and staple items, grocers have shown strong innovation potential in free-from. According to GlobalData research, the focus on key consumer trends seen from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Aldi has been strong, as demonstrated by the appearance of matcha powders, jackfruit, pomegranate and coconut high up on ingredients lists. But despite this encouraging show of promise, availability remains low across many stores, meaning that retailers are taking full advantage of opportunities to benefit from this high growth category.

Emerging brands

The ubiquitous nature of social media in modern life provides a way for smaller brands to advertise to a wide array of consumers, particularly millennials, reaching potential customers instantly and at a fraction of the cost required for traditional marketing methods. Consequently, the uptake of social media has facilitated the proliferation of smaller brands, and the word-of-mouth feature of social media platforms means that trends can gain popularity very quickly, particularly if the trend is highlighted by a notable figure or celebrity.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that the rising number of health-conscious consumers has fuelled an increase in the appearance of social media accounts dedicated to healthy or specialist dietary needs. In some instances, the creators of dietary focused accounts, such as Livia’s Kitchen and Deliciously Ella, have used their social media success as a platform to launch their own free-from food ranges.

Innovation is still a key aspect for emerging brands in free-from categories. The demand for vegan, refined sugar-free, dairy-free and paelo food products looks set to increase as the number of people aligning themselves with particular dietary requirements continues to grow. As such, brands have to pull out all the stops to make products stand out in a rapidly developing category. New and unusual ingredients, such as pandam flour, raw chocolate, coconut flesh and date caramel have begun to appear onto the food scene as small producers look for enticing ways to tap into the free-from market.

Free from within food service

Until recently, food service was largely centred around dairy-free alternatives when it came to free from offerings, with coffee shops providing a variety of milk substitutes that consumers could opt to replace traditional cow’s milk in their brew.

The growing demand for free from options has sparked further innovation as food service operatives look to cash in on a lucrative trend. One particular example of this is the coconut range launch by coffee chain Costa in 2018. Younger consumers already use coconut in a variety of different ways in home cooking and drink preparation, so its appearance in a food service offering is likely to have significant appeal for younger generations of consumers. Marks and Spencer has also started to stock gluten-free bread rolls and scones in M&S cafés.

For vegan, dairy and gluten free shoppers, the options are still limited, but, as the free from trend moves into the mainstream, food services can expand their product portfolios to cater to a wider variety of specialist diets. This is likely to be seen as a step in the right direction for shoppers, as well as helping brands to target the strong growth of the free from.

Consumer trends shift rapidly, which means that companies need to be able to adapt to changing desires and demands. To ensure the greatest chance of success, retailers need to be well informed about the latest hit ingredient or fad as experimentation and customisation is a key trend in foodservice.

Natural flavours

Natural ingredients dominate the free from market. The focus of the trend centres around natural, unprocessed foods, with some of the most popular products being honey, agave syrup, stevia, almond and coconut.

Refined sugar substitutes, such as honey, agave syrup and stevia, have grown in popularity over recent years, notably since major brands like Coca-Cola started to feature them in products. Using a combination of sugar and stevia has also been seen on the carbonates market, and while this is not a wholly free from option, it is a combination that is expected to become more common as companies work to target prominent health trends.

Meat-free alternatives have become a well-established market in the UK. Among the offerings available to consumers, Quorn has been a prominent figure in the market. However, innovative concepts from brands such as Cauldron are sparking new interest in tofu with flavour creations including marinated tofu in lightly spiced seasoning. While this competition may be good news for shoppers looking to avoid meat products, saturation in the market creates greater choice which may threaten Quorn’s dominance over the market.

Overall, plant-based substitutes have emerged as one of the most popular trends in free from. A clear hit with consumers, plant-based products provide a wealth of additional nutrients that their conventional counterparts do not, which adds value to the substitute product while also catering to the core needs of free from consumers.