Ronald Holman is the Event and Conference Director of Free From Food & Health Ingredients, the leading European trade event showcasing the vast potential of the organic, free-from and vegan market, connecting retailers, food service buyers, importers, traders, manufacturers and technologists.

Ronald Holman

The 11th edition of the two-day event will take place on 21-22 November at Amsterdam RAI. 5,000+ visitors are expected to attend, including the 400 category management visitors attending the prestigious ‘Captains of The Category Industry Event’ organized by event partner and Dutch Food Magazine: FoodPersonality together with the Dutch Association of Food Trade Marketeers (TMA). The event will include a full educational programme with a line-up of expert speakers across the two days of the show. The winners of FoodPersonality’s prestigious ‘Captain of the Category’ annual survey and the show’s own Healthy Innovation Award will also be presented at the event.

Free From Food & Health Ingredients celebrates editions in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bangkok, Sao Paulo & Dubai, driving the future of Vegan, Plant-Based, Free From, Organic, Functional and Healthy Lifestyle Food, Drinks and Ready to Market Solutions.

How has the free-from market evolved in recent years and what are the prospects for the future?

We’ve seen the free-from market experience exponential growth over the past few years. In fact, the market is currently estimated to be worth US$80.8 billion globally and expected to reach more than US$150 billion by 2028 – growth of some 13.25%. Driving growth is a combination of more people reporting allergies and food intolerances, and the growth of consumers increasingly turning to free-from foods as a healthier choice.

«#glutenfree has more than 41m posts on Instagram alone, #freefrom and #nutfree around 800,000 posts each and #freefromfood around 50,000 posts»

For instance, in the UK, there are an estimated two million people with a diagnosed food allergy and approximately 600,000 with Coeliac Disease. However, outside of official medical diagnosis we know that there are many more people who believe they have a sensitivity or intolerance to certain foods: Allergy UK reports that up to 20% of the British population experience reactions to foods4 . And the situation certainly appears to be similar in Europe where it’s estimated that anywhere between 11 million and 26 million people suffer from a food allergy, which Allergy UK says translates to 240-550 million potential food-allergic people worldwide.

How do dietary trends and lifestyles, such as veganism or the gluten-free diet, influence the freefrom food market?

The free-from food market originally developed predominantly out of the need for gluten, dairy, or nutfree products, such as bread, snacks and other prepared foods. However, as time has gone on the market has developed, as consumers increasingly view many free-from foods as offering general health benefits over and above the absence of one or more ingredients. That’s because some freefrom foods tend to be minimally processed or are perceived to be more ‘natural’ than other products.

At the same time, the recent exponential rise of meat-free, plant-based diets is another facet of free-from that barely existed just a few years ago. An EU-funded study in 2021 found a 49% rise in Europeans’ consumption of plant-based foods across meat, milk, yoghurt, cheese, ice-cream and fish categories in the two previous years, resulting in sales of €3.6 billion and confirmation they are no longer a niche preserve of animal lovers and environmentalists.

Ronald Holman
©Bio Eco Actual

What are the main challenges facing the free-from industry?

The free-from food sector certainly saw some benefits from the pandemic lockdown in 2020: More people staying at home and looking for foods with health benefits was a bonus for many brands. However, since then global economic factors have affected the market. For instance, double-digit price inflation – particularly in some food ingredients – has hit the free-from sector as so many shoppers have had to cut back on non-essentials… likely limiting sales to people who really need them. Mintel reports, and I agree, that for brands to appeal to shoppers who don’t need to buy them, they should concentrate on making products that taste better and are more nutritious than standard foods.

«Consumers increasingly view many free-from foods as offering general health benefits over and above the absence of one or more ingredients»

Also, I’m expecting that as inflation eases and environmental concerns continue to capture the public imagination, free-from foods – particularly dairy and meat-free – will continue to gain ground with more shoppers who are looking to improve their sustainability credentials.

What strategies are effective in reaching and attracting consumers interested in free-from foods?

Clear labelling is absolutely vital for free-from brands… alongside wider health or environmental benefits that can help them stand out from the plethora of other products on the market. For retailers, well signposted shelves help shoppers to distinguish free-from foods – something that is particularly important for people with allergies or intolerances. Mintel’s latest food and drink insights stresses the need for product packaging to clearly state USPs and benefits, which of course include any freefrom credentials.

«Clear labelling is absolutely vital for free-from brands»

In terms of how to reach consumers, social media continues to be pivotal if Instagram hashtags are anything to go by. It’s where brands promote themselves to potential and current consumers and where free-from influencers post recipes and food inspiration. #glutenfree has more than 41m posts on Instagram alone, #freefrom and #nutfree around 800,000 posts each and #freefromfood around 50,000 posts.

What is your vision for the future of the free-from food market?

The free-from market is here to stay, and we see that people are choosing free-from products as part of a conscious effort to eat more healthily – not just because they have an allergy or intolerance. I believe that, increasingly, more foods previously considered as ‘mainstream’ will incorporate elements of freefrom where recipes and technologies allow. For instance, we may increasingly see brands switching grains to make more items gluten-free, or using dairy substitutes.

Certainly, free-from is no longer considered the ‘fad’ diet it might have been just a few years ago… and it’s clear that globally demand is rising, so we’re expecting more and more food manufacturers to cater for these demands. And of course, there is still much room for innovation from brands willing to invest both in unique recipes and flavours, and in consumer research to better understand consumer needs.

Author: Oriol Urrutia, Bio Eco Actual Co-Editor

Subscribe to Bio Eco Actual Newsletter and be up to date with the latest news from the Organic Sector

Bio Eco Actual, International Organic Newspaper
Article Originally Published in NATEXPO 2023 Bio Eco Actual Special Edition