Whenever I am asked where I think ‘freefrom’ is going – my answer is that it is, over the next few years, going to move into the mainstream. That it is, indeed, going to become mainstream. So rarely have I felt smugger than when I heard, a couple of weeks ago, that Heinz was launching three gluten-free pastas and three gluten-free pasta sauces. If you want mainstream, you cannot go much more mainstream than Heinz!
Of course, after Pizza Hut and Domino’s launched their gluten-free pizzas last year, it was only a matter of time before other big players in the UK food world joined Warburtons (following in the pioneering footsteps of the supermarkets) – all of them targeting not only those who need to eat gluten (or dairy, or egg, or nut) free but who actually chose to do so as they feel it is better for their health and general well being. And do not kid yourself – they are now the fastest growing sector of the freefrom market and the one which shows most potential for growth.
And now, only days after the Heinz announcement, we hear that Genius, who are looking to increase their turnover to £50 million in 2013, has moved into the acquisitions market, taking over Livwell and United Central Bakeries (who brought the original Genius bread to market) from Finsbury Foods. So we are talking big money here – ‘serious’ players.
Of course, not everyone is going to be happy about this. Those who believe that it is the food industry’s highly-processed, high-gluten products made from intensively farmed, over chemicalised ingredients that are largely to blame for the epidemic of allergy and intolerance which is sweeping Western populations, will be particularly unhappy. They believe that the answer is to go back to basics and that if we were all eating freshly cooked foods, grown locally and organically, our food problems would go away. And I do not disagree.
However, practically speaking, in our urbanised, convenience-orientated society, this is not going to happen on anywhere near large enough a scale to affect population health. So most of us are going to continue to eat the products of the food industry, be they freefrom or not. My approach, therefore, is two pronged. Yes, encourage everyone, but especially those who are suffering from allergy or intolerance problems, to eat freshly cooked, locally grown, organic foods. But at the same time, encourage the food industry to produce foods which their customers will be able to eat with further damaging their health, and hopefully even improving it. Namely, foods that are not only gluten, or dairy, or soya, or egg, or nut free but that are simply made from less highly processed and more nutritious ingredients.
And, through a combination of medical concern (especially over obesity), higher consumer expectations, pressure from ethical, animal welfare and environmental groups and better consumer health awareness, this is happening. Not everywhere and not as widely as one would like. However, a quick survey of the ingredients in the vast majority of the industry-made freefrom products entered into this year’s FreeFrom Food Awards shows a massive improvement in terms of quality of ingredients and simplicity of manufacture over five years ago.
Just to illustrate what I mean, we have a a massive E number table which we provide for FFFood Awards judges to allow them to assess the desirability of the processing aids used in the manufacture of entered products. Two or three years ago, this needed to be consulted for every second product; this year I think we consulted it four times over the course of six days judging!
And while there is some justification for the fear that ever expanding and encroaching supermarkets may push small independent shops out of business, the same does not really apply to small freefrom businesses. Thanks to the internet and the services of the much abused Royal Mail, they can provide the sort of individual and specialised service to their customers that big business and the supermarkets could never hope to emulate. So although freefrom customers may well buy their freefom cornflakes or bags of flour via a supermarket they will still be happy to go to the small mail order business for their muffins, their celebration cakes, their specialist sauces, ready meals or puddings.
What is more, the big boys have no interest in squeezing them out – far from it. As one of the major manufacturers told me when I apologised for the fact that, yet again, a micro business had been the one to win the FreeFrom Food Awards rather than a supermarket: ‘Small businesses are vital to us in this area as they are the ones who drive innovation and quality – they keep us on our toes and provide us with inspiration.’ Let’s hear it for small businesses!!