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The gluten-free sector in the UK has recorded recent growth. With ongoing innovation helping to push growth, there still remain opportunities for improvements around range, texture and flavour. Petah Marian investigates the issues and what plans manufacturers have to grow the channel.

The UK’s gluten-free sector has taken massive leaps forward in terms of innovation and quality but Norma McGough, head of diet and health at charity Coeliac UK, suggests there is some way to go before products are on par with their mainstream counterparts.

“Quality can be variable, although it definitely has been improved,” says McGough. However, she highlights the nutritional differences that can occur between gluten-free and mainstream products. For example, she highlights the failings of the UK government’s Bread and Flour legislation of 1998, which means that iron, thiamin, nicotinic acid or nicotinamide and calcium carbonate must be added to bread flour, which, aside from calcium, are normally lost through the milling process. “There is no such legislation around the flour used for gluten free bread,” emphasises McGough.

She also says that the reason behind the cakey texture of gluten-free fresh bread is higher fat content because the mixture is more like a cake mixture than a bread mixture. “Hopefully soon food technology will develop and we won’t need all that fat in the mix to make a good end product,” says McGough.

McGough also acknowledges that gluten-free products have been flagged up as having higher levels of salt, sugar and fat but insists that should not be too much of a surprise. “When you look at the products that tend to have gluten, which include bread, cakes and biscuits, they tend to have high levels of those items, so it’s understandable that their gluten-free counterparts would have the same issues,” she says.

Manufacturers are working to reduce the difference in taste between their traditional and free-from counterparts. Roz Cuschieri, director of Genius Foods, admits that the quality of gluten-free products has “not been what it should have been”, and that the company is passionate about creating products that are “as good as” the mainstream offering.

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Cuschieri highlights the challenges faced by manufacturers attempting to create the same taste and texture as their mainstream counterparts.

“The thing that I’ve learned since moving into the gluten-free market is that gluten plays such an important role in binding all of the raw materials together, and when that is gone, finding a way to bind the ingredients together is a big challenge. If you don’t get that right then you will end up with a texture to a product that you may not desire. So the texture and appearance is something that is very hard to get right,” she says.

Highlighting the scale of that challenge, Cuschieri says the company’s bread recipe took four years to develop. “Three ovens broke down trying to perfect it,” she reveals.

Genius Foods’ ambitions lie beyond bread and it has continued to work on NPD since the launch of its fresh bread range. In June, it introduced a line of “classic British dishes”. The range includes a peppered steak slice with gluten-free pastry and vegetables in a pepper sauce, sausage rolls made with British pork sausage meat wrapped in gluten-free pastry, and Genius Cornish slices.

According to Cuschieri, Genius Foods “invented” the fresh gluten-free bread category in the UK, which it launched in spring 2009. SymphonyIRI says that Genius leads the market, with its GBP2m in sales accounting for 62.5% of the market in the week ended 9 July.

However, while Genius has a strong lead over the competition, manufacturers and retailers are not sitting still.

Warburtons, for example, launched a range of five gluten and wheat-free free bakery products in January. According to SymphonyIRI data, sales for the week ended 9 July reached GBP236,557, giving it a 7.2% market share.

Competition is heating up. Own-label gluten-free bread sales accounted for some 19.3% of market share in the week ended 9 July but that is down on the 21.7% recorded in the same period of the previous year.

UK retailers, however, have been busy developing products. A Sainsbury’s spokesperson says its fresh bread range, which was also launched in January, is “selling well” and that there has been “a great deal of improvement” in the category for both private-label and brands in the last year.

The Co-operative Group, meanwhile, launched a range of free-from products in July. The range, which features staples such as pasta and English muffins, also features products like triple chocolate cookies.

The Co-op’s range strategy manager, Will Ingham, tells just-food that the retailer benchmarked its lines against the “best products in the market” and decided to launch products that would add the “most value to the range and to the Co-operative brand”.

“[The launch of the] free-from range is about recognising valuable customers’ needs,” Ingham says. “We want to build on our credibility in this market in the long term and evolve our offer to serve free from customers as best we can.”

While the company says it plans to continue to develop its private-label offer, and sees an opportunity for “further growth and innovation” in the bread category, it still has room for branded offers.

“Free-from brands still have the lion’s share of the free-from market and play a very important part in delivering a really broad offer for customers and a choice of products and price points,” Ingham says.

“Brands are also always evolving and bringing excellent new products to market, which we are always interested to see and the best examples will make it onto our shelves. Our own-label offer adds to the branded products, adding credence to the range and demonstrates our commitment to the free-from market.”

While both retailers and manufacturers see opportunity for growth in the free-from channel, there remain significant incremental opportunities in the packaged food sector. McGough suggests that manufacturers would do well to highlight the safety of ready meals and soups more often that have not been specifically developed for the gluten-free channel but which do not contain gluten.

For example, earlier this year, the Co-op reformulated the sausages and burgers in its Truly Irresistable range to be free from gluten and wheat.

“Things like ready meals and soups, where there are a number of ingredients and a coeliac might not necessarily be sure [but] where at a glance you can see a label that says they’re gluten-free so you can know that they’re ok,” says McGough.

“When there is a product with a number of ingredients, historically, flour might have been used as a stabiliser in these kinds of recipes, so it’s good to see this kind of development. So it’s not about creating new gluten-free products, but doing the necessary risk assessment, tests and quality controls to then be able to label them as gluten-free.”

Part one of the report can be found here.