Over 4-In-10 Britons Now Eating Specialised Diets With ‘Free From’ Set To Be £1bn Market Within Two Years

New research from Nielsen highlights the implications for food retailers and manufacturers from the increasing number of Britons avoiding certain ingredients due to health concerns.

42% of people say they are now eating a diet that excludes or limits consumption of some foods or ingredients. Antibiotics/hormones are the most common ingredients avoided (49%) followed by artificial additives, such as flavours, preservatives and sweeteners (45%) and sugar (42%). Genetically-modified foods (41%) follow next, narrowly ahead of products provided in packaging made with the chemical BPA (40%), which some campaign groups claim is linked to cancer.

Nielsen said that Britons’ desire to limit less healthy ingredients is illustrated by volume sales of sugar declining 8.1% year-on-year and soup, often high in sodium, declining 10.7%. Among the 14 countries in which Nielsen measures sugar sales, Britain sees the second biggest fall. Among the 16 countries in which it measures soup, Britain has the third largest fall.

Health concerns

One in five (19%) UK households contains someone who suffers from food allergies or intolerances, although this is much lower than the global average (36%). The most common ingredients avoided in the UK for these reasons are grains (43%), eggs (38%), lactose/diary (36%), gluten (30%) and carbohydrates (24%).

Indeed, sales of “Free From” products have risen 19% in the UK over the last year to £754m annually. Mike Watkins, Nielsen’s UK head of retailer and business insight noted: “It’s one of the fastest growing categories and, consequently, supermarkets are extending ranges. If this growth rate continues, ‘Free From’ would be a £1bn market within two years – the same size as today’s mineral water market.”

Watkins goes on to point out four “macro-trends” that are driving people to pay more attention to what they consume: “People are adopting a more back-to-basics mind-set, focusing on simple ingredients and fewer processed foods; they’re also taking a more active role in their own health care, which includes better nutrition, itself a reflection of the rising trend in chronic-disease rates. Finally, consumers are increasingly educated due to the internet providing access to more health information than could ever have been dreamed of in the past.”

Relating to the rise in disease and illness rates, one in five Britons say their dietary choice is specifically due to helping prevent conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol or hypertension. The World Health Organization says chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer are expected to account for 73% of deaths globally by 2020, up from about 60% in 2001.

What can retailers and manufacturers do?

Over four in 10 (42%) of people with specialised diets or family members with food intolerances say product offerings don’t fully meet their dietary needs. All-natural (34%) and low/no sugar (31%) products top the list that consumers wish there were more of on shelves, followed by no artificial flavours/colours (29%) and low/no fat (25%) products.

“Consumers need help from manufacturers and retailers when it comes to changing diets to address various concerns, particularly as some are prioritising ingredients over brands,” said Watkins. “It’s a win-win for both groups as it provides the industry with a significant opportunity to drive new and alternative product portfolios that people want to buy for the long-term – boosting the bottom line and building a loyal shopper base.”


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