Naturally free-from produce in position to pounce

Tracy Hamilton

Tracy Hamilton, a director of Mash

New legislation has raised awareness of the growing trend for ‘free-from’ foods, now a multi-million pound business. While it is has not been a major part of the evolving sector to date, fresh produce is in a great position to grab a slice of this market

Just before Christmas, the first wave of the European Union Food Information for Consumers Regulations came into force, which requires foodservice operators to provide information on 14 listed allergens on all food sold.

In the next two years there will be further changes to the labels on pre-packed foods, all designed to help consumers with allergies or intolerances to make informed purchases.

However, the free-from market is not being entirely driven by those who genuinely suffer health problems associated with different foodstuffs.

For example, although only 1% of the population has Coeliac disease, which requires a gluten-free diet, according to the Food Standards Agency, the British market for such products is worth £238 million annually and grew by more than 15% in 2014.

Products are typically gluten-free versions of bread, cereals, and confectionery as well as pasta and grains.

While Christmas is often seen as a time of indulgence, Waitrose reported a huge rise in the purchase of free-from treats such as dairy-free advent calendars, with sales up 72% year on year. The supermarket even had to order in more gluten-free mince pies to cope with demand.

Waitrose buyer Chloe Graves says: “While many of our customers do suffer from food allergies, we can attribute these unprecedented sales to the rising popularity of gluten and wheat free diets.”

Clearly this is a trend in healthy eating that the fresh produce trade is in the perfect place to take advantage of, given that fruit and vegetables are already naturally free-from.

Raw food chef Renee Maguire says that despite the obvious benefits of fruit and vegetables, she has come to realise through her work that many shoppers do not know how they can use produce to not only replace ingredients they want to eliminate, but also to cut down on waste.

Maguire says the industry is missing out on opportunities to help educate consumers, and therefore boost sales of fruit and vegetables.

“If you take broccoli for example, people often just eat the head but the stalks are just as nutritious and can be used in a green juice,” she says.

“I show clients how they can make courgette pasta, or cauliflower couscous – there are a lot of vegetables that can replace particular grains. You can even use something like an avocado to replace dairy. I make a chocolate mousse that has avocado rather than cream.”

Maguire adds that the fresh produce industry could do more to take away a lot of the confusion that she says the people she meets have over organic versus conventionally grown foods, pesticides and genetically modified foods.

“Sometimes people are nervous about what’s ‘safe’ to eat,” she says. “I tell people to get in touch with their local greengrocer, as they often have a great deal of knowledge to pass on.”

Sitting alongside the free-from trend is an increased interest in vegetarian food. A recent consumer survey undertaken by foodservice insights consultancy Horizons showed that one in 10 consumers sought vegetarian options on menus while a similar number looked for calorie information, while 4% were looking for gluten-free dishes.

Combining vegetarian with gluten-free has been a willing formula for Northern Irish vegetable accompaniment brand Mash Direct.

Tracy Hamilton, one of the directors of Mash Direct, says that the company converted its range of vegetable side dishes to gluten free in response to consumer demand.

Hamilton adds that while changing the products to free-from required investment and a variation in sources for ingredients such as breadcrumbs, it has paid off in terms of broadening their appeal.

“Converting our products to free-from has opened up new markets for them, we are accessible to everyone, and that has added to sales,” she says. “All of our 40 products are gluten free, and that’s a large range to offer in a supermarket.”

Mash Direct is endorsed by the Coeliac Society and works closely with the organisation, which inevitably helps with the promotion of the products. The company has invested in an appealing website, and is active in social media to get the message across that its dishes are free-from.

“We’re appealing not just to those who have a free-from diet because they are gluten intolerant, but also to people who are looking for a healthy but convenient meal solution.”

The rise in popularity of bloggers and chefs like DeliciouslyElla and Hemsley & Hemsley, which feature sugar, gluten and dairy free recipes and inspiration, is also impacting on consumer shopping habits. Waitrose has attributed the success of the green vegetable Cavolo Nero, with sales up by 343%, to it being championed by bloggers.

Amari Thomsen, of consumer insight and marketing agency Fleishman-Hillard, says the surge of social networking has had a definite impact on consumer food choices.

“Food companies, retailers, and nutrition experts are using resources like blogs, recipe networks, apps and social media platforms to communicate nutrition messages to the public,” she explains.

“More and more dieticians are relying on consumer influencers and social media to weigh in on nutrition trends and encourage the public to make healthier food choices.”

While many growers and suppliers of fruit and vegetables do so in ‘white label’ form, the world of social media does provide opportunities for the produce industry to promote itself.

As Hamilton comments, Mash Direct has benefited from being a brand and a small business that could move quickly to capitalise on the trends.

With the free-from trend expected to keep on growing, it’s becoming an area of the business that fresh produce specialists can no longer ignore.
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