Is it time To Call The Top On The Free From Bull Market?

Free from has been the darling of the grocery category for a number of years now. With volume and value struggling in conventional areas of stores, retailers have flocked to a category growing 20% year on year.  

The story has been one of a virtuous cycle – played out across the ambient and chilled shelves of Europe and beyond: Stores have given Free From more space in store, which brings more innovative products and brands onto the shelves, this brings in more shoppers to the Free From category, this in turn drives up rate of sale and value and convinces retailers to allocate even more space at the next range change cycle. 

However, I don’t want to be the one to spoil the party but anyone who has ever heard me talk about Free From knows I add a downbeat coda at the end of all my talks. I have a worry with Free From and I call it the ‘dirty little secret’.  

Simply put: Free From has grown in recent years by attracting new Lifestyle (eg non medical need) shoppers into the category on a wave of wellbeing-lifestyle-health feel good. Yet the truth is, gram for gram, Free From products are often worse on many key macronutrients than conventional products – fat, sugar, salt etc.   

There are often reasons for this nutritional divergence eg technical challenges, a desire for better taste/texture etc. But the fact remains – the growth has come from people who don’t actually need to exclude wheat/gluten but think that doing so is in some way ‘better for you’. However, on the evidence of many product macronutrients, its not. I see this issue as the ticking of a clock.  

That’s why I’m urging Free From companies to hurry up and improve the health status of their products.  How long before the various daily news and blog articles criticising Free From out starts to make a real impression in sales figures? 

Its one of the facts of life that you can’t call the top of a market until the peak has been passed (just as you can’t call the bottom until you are past it either). Now, no one would dare to call time on Free From’s golden age just yet, but there are a number of voices out there warning that the Free From growth bull run can’t go on for ever.  

I don’t think there is any need to panic in the short term. However the good, progressive companies will be thinking through how they are going to move their brands and products on, how they develop them so that when the day comes and there is a downturn in Free From sales, then they are positioned to survive the inevitable retail shake out that will come. 

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