Long-life has long dominated the free-from bakery sector, but the arrival of Genius bread has changed all that. Linda Harrison reports

Until recently, gluten-free bakery products were the domain of health food shops and niche product aisles in supermarkets. Consumers had to actively seek them out, often finding that the gluten-free bread on offer had a six-month shelf life or tasted nothing like a traditional loaf of bread.

But the entrance of fresh bread brand Genius, made by United Central Bakeries, has changed all that. It has seen overnight success and is now stocked by all the major supermarkets with a growing fan base and its own TV ads. The more fortunate among us can even order Genius with our afternoon tea at Claridge’s. And with Warburtons becoming the first major bread brand to launch a gluten-free range next month, there’s no doubt free-from is hurtling into the mainstream.

Figures from Mintel’s Health Food Retailing, UK 2010 report show sales of "gluten-free, dairy-free and other free-from foods" have risen by 89% over the past four years, from £114m in 2005 to £216m in 2009.

Emma Herring, retail brand manager at Nutrition Point, which produces Dietary Specials (DS gluten-free) and TRUfree, says: "Fresh bread is driving growth, along with rolls and baps. More and more people are avoiding mainstream bread products, either because they have coeliac disease, an allergy or intolerance to gluten or wheat, or because they choose to cut bread from their diet as part of a lifestyle choice."

Herring adds that, despite usually being generally more expensive, the free-from bread category has proved largely recession-proof. "There’s a real opportunity for bread retailers and manufacturers to take advantage of this thriving sector," she says. "Ten years ago, free-from foods were almost unheard-of in the major multiples, but now gluten- and wheat-free products are widely available, with the market outgrowing niche category status and beginning to break through into the mainstream."

You only have to look at Genius to see the potential. Invented by full-time mum Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, when her son was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, her aim was to create a fresh, soft gluten-free loaf that looked and tasted like normal bread. It launched in Spring 2009 and the idea has proved to be, well, pure Genius. It even supplies Starbucks with bread for its gluten-free sandwiches.

Bruce-Gardyne says: "The market is certainly hotting up. It’s very important not to be complacent. It will do us good to have some competitors though, to not be the only pebble on the beach. And our competitors will be increasing awareness of gluten-free too, which is good. There is huge potential, as there is such a need for gluten-free food."

She says bread is tricky to get right with gluten-free because it is the gluten that usually gives bread its structure. And gluten-free breads have traditionally been long-life and vacuum-packed, designed for medical rather than taste reasons.

She adds: "The demand is there. I soon realised that lots of people were buying gluten-free cakes, pasta and biscuits because they tasted fine but they had completely given up on bread. It’s fantastic they can now buy bread, or go into Starbucks and pick up a sandwich." In addition, Genius Foods recently appointed Roz Cuschieri, Warburtons’s former commercial director, as a director responsible for developing the brand in the UK.

Meanwhile, Warburtons is entering the free-from sector with the launch of its Gluten-Free range. Available from mid-January, it includes white and brown loaves in 400g and 600g, white and brown three packs of sub rolls, a four-pack of teacakes and a four-pack of crumpets, with RRPs from £1.99 to £2.89. The products have a seven-day shelf-life. The company says it wanted to produce bread that focused on softness, smell and taste as well as quality.

Darren Littler, head of innovation and product marketing at Warburtons, says: "Warburtons has been considering entering the gluten-free market for about four years, and has spent about 12 months developing our new range. We decided to launch the range in response to the number of letters we received from customers who wanted us to offer products in this area."

Warburtons will produce the range from a separate new site in Newcastle a bakery completely dedicated to producing wheat-free and gluten-free products. The launch is backed by a £1m promotional campaign for 2011, also due to kick off in January. While no TV ads are planned, it will include consumer press and digital activity and a celebrity partnership. Littler says the company will look to expand the range in the future, adding: "The free-from bakery category is has seen big growth in the past year. There’s lots of potential there." He admits the range is priced higher than Warburtons’ standard products, but explains that the raw materials are much more expensive. Ingredients include a number of starches, such as potato and tapioca, wholegrain maize flour, rice bran, egg, and the usual yeast and water.

He adds: "We’ve had great results internally and externally in taste tests. We also consulted the Coeliac Society for guidance. We’ve had some very positive feedback. It is estimated that 1% of the population has coeliac disease, while a further 10% have a gluten-free diet as a lifestyle choice."

According to Kantar Worldpanel, the free-from bread market is worth £13.9m a year in the UK, with 6.4 million packs sold in the past year (52 w/e 31 October 2010). Littler adds: "It would appear that it has been helped by the entrance of Genius, and the invigoration of supermarket shelves. It has had a boost." Warburtons has secured three major listings with supermarkets from January and is in negotiations with two others.

Plenty of companies are seeing a growth in demand in the sector. Mrs Crimble’s MD Jeremy Woods says: "With more and more gluten-free products tasting every bit as good (and sometimes better) than conventional alternatives, many people now buy them just because they love their taste. Buying gluten-free has started to become a lifestyle choice. There is a blurring of boundaries and we increasingly see Mrs Crimble’s as making treats that everyone can enjoy rather than a free-from brand." Products include Mini Choc Orange Macaroons and a new twin pack of Choc Chip Muffins.

Northern Ireland-based gluten- and wheat-free producer Honest has also launched a gluten-free fresh loaf, and offerswheat-free biscuits and an established cake range.

Meanwhile, Yorkshire-based gourmet food store Lewis & Cooper has launched its first gluten-free hamper for £39, including lemon butter shortbread, stilton & walnut savoury biscuits and its own award-winning plum pudding and luxury fruit cake.

Glebe Farm Foods recently expanded its range of gluten-free products, which includes a premix for cakes and muffins available in chocolate and plain in 12.5kg and 25kg sacks, and plain flour.

New products include gluten-free oat flakes and oat flour. Rebecca Rayner, Glebe Farm Foods MD, says traditional oats can be contaminated with wheat due to farming methods. But the new products are grown on land that is dedicated to gluten-free oats. She says: "The big challenge is the amount of NPD work that’s required for gluten-free products, but it’s such a growing market our gluten-free lines are our best-sellers."

Meanwhile, German producer Ireks has offered gluten-free products for more than 10 years, and its Singlupan product is a complete replacement to flour. Maurice van Tongeren, Ireks executive sales manager, says: "It creates bread and cakes, but also makes excellent pizza bases, pastries, soup thickener you name it. There are a multitude of uses for the baker and caterer." Ireks also offers a gluten-free muffin mix, sponge cake mix, brownies and baguette roll mix and is in the final development stage of a new multi-purpose bread mix.

Gluten-free is also creating plenty of opportunities in the craft sector, with bakers starting up at home all over the country. Two such operations are airyfairycupcakes, near Manchester, and Pretty Princess Cupcakes, near Liverpool. Laura Draper, who runs AiryFairyCupcakes, says gluten-free accounts for a fairly small amount of orders, about 5%, but she says it’s an important part of the business, similar to offering vegan and low fat products. She says: "We opened our business earlier this year and have seen a steady demand for gluten-free orders. We’re now working on a wider range of flavours and believe this will increase future demand. Offering gluten-free is important for small bakers; it opens out our market."

Cross-contamination is prevented by using separate storage containers and areas for different flours, plus a vigorous clean-down between all batches.

Lisa Finnigan owns Pretty Princess Cupcakes and became interested in gluten-free cooking because her stepfather is a coeliac. All of her cupcakes are available gluten-free, and she has seen an increasing number of orders for these products. She says: "The trick is making people realise gluten-free cakes taste really nice. To me, they taste exactly the same as other cakes."

Meanwhile, some craft bakers are finding their size gives them certain advantages in the premium gluten-free sector. Sarah Hilleary started her company, b-tempted, from her home, but recently moved to a small commercial gluten-free kitchen after getting her range stocked by Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Whole Foods Market. Products include lemon drizzle loaf and flourless chocolate brownies.

Hilleary, who is gluten-intolerant, says: "Being smaller allows us to remain flexible and provide a more personalised service to cafés and coffee shops. It also allows us to remain in touch with our customers and the sort of products they would like to see next."

As Bruce-Gardyne showed, starting small doesn’t mean you cannot think big. Paddy Cronin, commercial director at United Central Bakeries (UCB), says: "This was previously a niche area but there are lots of reasons why people choose not to eat gluten or wheat. And they need these products to be good." UCB produces more than 100 different gluten-free products. Its site in Bathgate, near Edinburgh, has three self-contained units, two for gluten-free and one for traditional bakery goods. The company also has a gluten-free site in Hull.

Cronin says: "We started about seven years ago and came at it from the baker’s point of view, rather than from a pharmaceutical background. We produce all sorts of food, including bread, rolls, ciabatta, pittas, naans, crumpets and scones. When we started, the minimum shelf-life for gluten-free bread was six months. With Genius and the new fresh own-label products, we’ve got that down to seven days."

The company recently launched fresh own-label rolls and bread with Tesco, and Cronin expects there to be a move to fresh gluten-free bakery goods in general.

John Duffy, CEO of Finsbury Food Group, which owns UCB, says the company is delighted with how the free-from business is going. "It has been hard work but it seems like it is maturing nicely and attracting a lot of broad interest," he says.

The company plans to broaden its range of gluten-free products. As gluten-free starts to evolve into a lifestyle product, Duffy feels there is a good chance that more people will buy the products who are not allergic to gluten, but who are self-diagnosed for example, if wheat makes them feel bloated. "I think that’s a very significant part of the population, as high as 15%. They would seek the products out if they tasted good," he says.

Duffy says that Genius has become a £10m brand in retail in an incredibly short space of time, adding: "That has demonstrated that the time for fresh gluten-free products is here."