France's gluten-free market has taken longer to develop than in some of its neighbours in western Europe. But growth is starting to gather momentum. In this part of just-food's briefing on the region's gluten-free sector, Dean Best looks at the evolution of the French market and its future prospects.
At the end of the Noughties, with gluten free taking root in western Europe, France was, in relative terms, not one of the markets where the category was developing rapidly.
Data from Euromonitor International measuring gluten-free retail sales for 2009 shows France ranked outside the top nine markets in western Europe, behind the likes of Austria, Finland and Norway.
The slower pace of development has perplexed some industry watchers. "This is fairly surprising considering the potential for high end, health foods in a relatively strong economy. The French love of organic products also makes it surprising with so many gluten free products also organic," Hamish Renton, MD of free-from consultants HRA Marketing, says.
Some operating in the French gluten-free sector say awareness among local of coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity has been low, which has seen the category's growth in the market lag behind nearby countries like the UK and Italy. There has also been in France some resistance to trends that may have been perceived as fad diets.
However, gluten free has started to gather momentum in France in recent years. In the period from 2009 to 2014, gluten-free sales more than trebled, Euromonitor says, taking France to fourth spot, behind only Italy, the UK and Germany.
Manufacturers eyeing gluten-free markets in western Europe may still see other countries as more attractive. Data from Mintel, for example, suggests 13% of the UK population say they are avoiding gluten, with the figure at 9% in Italy, 7% in Germany and Spain, compared to 6% in France.
However, some within the market argue France is catching up with its European neighbours. "We have seen an acceleration in the last two to three years. There has always been a huge gap between France and other big European markets, but this gap is diminishing quickly,"">Lorenzo Iannis, sales manager for the French arm of gluten-free manufacturer Dr Schär, tells just-food.
"Gastroenterologists and dieticians are increasingly informed about gluten-related disorders like coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity, so they are able to recognise the symptoms – which was not the case a few years ago, when awareness was much less acute. People are also more informed about what they are eating, paying close attention to what is better for their health. These factors affect the amount of patients being diagnosed with coeliac disease."
The French government partially reimburses those diagnosed with coeliac disease for the cost of buying some gluten-free products, including biscuits, bread and pasta, which has supported the market.
However, as in other countries, the accelerated pace in the development of France's gluten-free sector has been driven not just by rising diagnosis rates but by demand from mainstream consumers who see gluten-free products as healthier.
"Gluten-free diets have become quite popular in the media as a new weight-management weapon. It has even been dubbed the no-glu diet and has a growing following in France amongst health-conscious, young adults. This belief comes from the fact that obesity can be a symptom of gluten intolerance, thus it has propelled the idea that a gluten-free diet could help consumers lose weight," Roberto Fernandez, senior research analyst at Euromonitor, says.
Supermarkets have grown to become the largest part of the sector in France as retailers seek to meet growing demand from coeliacs and from mainstream consumers. However, as Bord Bia, the Irish state agency that seeks to promote Irish food abroad, notes, while supermarkets account for around of 49% of gluten-free sales in France, organic outlets remain a big chunk of the market, generating 46% of sales, a channel different to, say, the UK.
As with other markets, in the early stages of the development of France's gluten-free sector, the focus was on segments like bakery and snacks but, in recent years, the category has expanded and activity in areas such as meal solutions is increasing. Last autumn, nutrition specialist Nutrifood launched gluten-free ready-meal range Bienfaits Pour Moi under its Nutrisaveurs brand, joining existing players such as US-based Amy's Kitchen, which started selling its range of frozen, organic and gluten-free meals in France in 2013.
Dr Schär's namesake brand is the best-selling in France, as in western Europe as a whole. Iannis describes the Italy-based group as the "pioneer" in the category, selling across all channels in France – including supermarket chains, online and pharmacies. The company has been steadily expanding its range in France, recently adding to its range in the country with a line of frozen products, pizzas and lasagne, to help consumers to cook their meals moer conveniently, even if they follow a gluten-free diet.
However, Iannis has a note of caution about the entry of non-coeliacs into the category. "We need to distinguish between two types of consumers: The first, who are buying gluten-free products, after seeing a doctor and being diagnosed as gluten intolerant. Their health drastically improves following this diet – for this population a gluten-free diet is the only way to live without the painful symptoms like stomach ache, diarrhoea and nausea. We then have a second group of consumers, that are attracted by the media buzz around gluten or by curiosity or because they have decided to follow this diet, because they are convinced this will improve their overall health. This second group is consuming less frequently with less quantity – and of course there is a high turnover of consumers just doing entry-exit," he says.
Nevertheless, the development of the category and the entry of more mainstream consumers have led to more conventional manufacturers eyeing the sector. Nestle's meats brand Herta and local mainstream food group Fleury Michon both sell gluten-free ham.
France's gluten-free category has also attracted a growing number of international players, from Amy's Kitchen to Barilla, which launched its pasta in the market last year, and on to UK baker Genius Foods and Spanish counterpart Proceli.
The country's retailers are also reacting, perhaps not to the extent seen in markets like the UK, but the category in France is seeing the development of own-label ranges, with Auchan, Carrefour, Casino and E.Leclerc dipping their toes into the sector.
Bob Trice, the former MD of Dr Schär's UK arm and now a gluten-free food industry consultant, describes France as "the sleeping giant" of western Europe when it comes to own label. "I think there's definitely some room there because there are some big retailers in France. They've started to get involved in private label but I don't see it being very, very successful yet."
At Dr Schär, Iannis is sanguine about the inroads private label is making into France's gluten-free category. "Private labels have contributed strongly to the growth of the market, even if their range is covering only the basic needs. So far the quality of private labels is good and all retailers also have their own specific nutritional policies. Brands do not have to consider private labels as a threat, as they are also responding to a consumer demand. Private labels play mainly in the bread, flour, biscuit arena so far. Leader brands have to play their role in bringing innovations and dynamism and make shopping an experience for consumers, so looking for gluten-free products will become everyday more satisfactory and enjoyable."
With competition intensifying and retailers looking to develop their own ranges, as well as a plethora of competing health messages from organic to functional foods, manufacturers are turning to product development to offer a broader range to coeliacs, those sensitive to gluten and to mainstream consumers.
As well as fledgling segments such as meal solutions, Iannis also points to opportunities to extend ranges in more "traditional" areas like bakery and snacks, with Dr Schär recently adding wraps and chocolate snack bar Chocolix to its stable on sale in France. UK biscuit and cake maker Mrs Crimble's sees an opportunity in France and has succeeded in gaining listings with "a couple of major retailers" that stat in September, Gareth Toms, the company's international commercial director, says.
Those in the gluten-free sector will no doubt hope France can follow its neighbours and the sector will continue to grow. The signs are encouraging, even if increasing competition will make the right marketing and new product development strategies critical.