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While vegans and coeliacs may seem like a minority, making up just 2-3% of the population, it is not just these groups who regularly purchase free-from products. In fact, a third of Brits consider themselves to be flexitarian – meaning they actively try to reduce meat consumption and opt for vegan or vegetarian choices – while 15% avoid gluten.
The rise of free-from
As Sam McDonald, managing director at chickpea snack brand Hippeas explains: “Veganism and eating plant-based are not passing trends, these are lifestyles that more and more people are signing up for, for the long-term. Whether you’re doing it for your health, the environment, animal humanity or all three – there’s a major shift happening that anyone can see.”
Sarah Larby, digital marketing assistant at Sous Chef also saw free-from as a rising trend to stay, adding: “I think free-from diets have increased how willing people are to try new things. We’re seeing more people experimenting with new ingredients and taking inspiration from different cuisines where certain ‘free-from’ diets are more commonplace.
“For example, Asian cuisines such as Thai, Chinese or Vietnamese tend to be more dairy-free. Meanwhile, South-Indian cuisine (flatbreads, vegetable curries, dahl) and Mediterranean cuisines (hummus, falafel, salads) can be very vegan-friendly.
“When going out to restaurants now most places will offer at least one option for free-from diets, and we are seeing more pop-ups that cater to these dietary groups. And with cookbook sales increasing again in 2022, it’s becoming more commonplace for brands or chefs to release two cookbooks – one for meat-diets and one for vegetarian, (for example, LEON, Tim Anderson and Rumiki Iyer have done this).”
How to sell free-from
When it comes to selling free-from, Sarah suggests retailers can “make sure they have the right stock to cater to a growing audience and make their navigation online more accessible by creating different categories for different diet types.”
Successfully stocking free-from requires retailers to put real thought and effort into the options they provide. It’s no longer about just having one option, as the majority of stores will be providing one too; yours needs to show consideration and creativity.
Sam agrees: “Consumers know what they want and expect more from better-for-you foods and snacks. They don’t want to forgo taste for health, so free-from foods need to taste as delicious as their mainstream competitors, but have enhanced nutritional profiles.”
There are various ways indie retailers can take advantage of the free-from opportunity. Sarah suggests providing ideas on how to incorporate these products into their diets, making free-from look exciting rather than restricting. “If people are new to a certain diet, make sure you have inspirational content such as recipe ideas and lifestyle imagery to help people think more creatively about what they can make.”
Sam identifies free-from snacking as a major area to capitalise on. “Consumer demand for better-for-you (and convenient) foods and snacks has never been stronger, and retailers can capitalise on lifestyles like vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free by offering a mix of items and self-serve, grab-and-go snacks and prepared food products that cater to this with a product delivery that is interesting, good tasting and differentiated vs the normal offering.”
A free-from future?
Sarah envisions a future that doesn’t segregate meat and veggie options, as the public embraces flexitarianism. She explains: “With free-from diets becoming more and more commonplace, I’d anticipate that the future will be more inclusive. I’d imagine we see more ‘alternatives’ in recipe books for each recipe rather than separate cookbooks, and less of a divide between free-from and other diets.”
In fact, retailers risk missing out on customers if they don’t cater to free-from diets. According to Ana Purcaroiu, senior consumer analyst at GlobalData, “People will increasingly base their choice of retailer on the availability of plant-based products, as GlobalData’s survey revealed that 21% of UK millennials claim that the availability of special dietary products is the most influential factor when deciding where to do their grocery shopping.”
Emma Bowe, food director at Veganly Deli, a plant-based deli meat and cheese producer, explains: “If a customer doesn’t eat vegan products, you’re guaranteed one of their family members does, so the more inclusive you are at your deli counter, the higher likelihood more locals will shop with you over your competitor down the road. That will show up in your profits at the end of the month.”
While it is unlikely that all of your customers will consistently purchase free-from products, the rise of these diets brings an opportunity for conscientious retailers who are keen to cater to all existing – and potential – customers.