Northern Ireland has seen significant growth in companies in what has become known as the ‘free from foods’ category, products free from gluten, fat free, with no added sugar and suitable for vegans and/or vegetarians. We’ve also see more foods than ever being promoted as plant-based.
Analysts such as Neha Srivastava, food and drink specialist at market survey consultancy Mintel, says that while demand for healthier food options has been growing across the UK, consumers “don’t want to compromise on taste,” meaning that fine food retailers can help drive this industry forward.
Surveys have also shown that the pandemic has intensified the need for indulgence among consumers. It has placed a higher priority on health by measures such as cutting sugar intake.
The balance appears to have tilted towards perceived healthier food which doesn’t compromise on taste.
We’ve seen three smaller companies gain major awards in the free from category – Forest Feast in Portadown for a range of nuts and dried fruits; Otzibrew in Belfast for a coffee alternative that’s healthier; and Mash Direct, Comber, for its veggie options.
Forest Feast, a brand of Kestrel Foods, also has a sister business in Acti-Snack, an innovative producer of nut, seed and fruit snack mixes that are a source of protein for rebuilding damaged muscles and to replenish key minerals.
Mintel says brands across Europe are also innovating with products that get their sweetness from functional fibres such as inulin that contribute to gut health, another growing concern among consumers.
Another small company which has been creating international attention is Belfast-based That Protein, run by clinical nutritionist Darlene McCormick. It has achieved a trio of major UK Nourish Awards for its plant-based super powders and high protein organic porridge that’s now drawing export orders.
In addition, That Protein is the only local artisan company to have achieved the influential FODMAP accreditation as a product beneficial to vegans, gut health and especially those suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
That Protein’s recently launched natural oat porridge is among the full range of superfood powders which are now on sale at Vegabond, the leading plant-based food store and deli for vegans and café for health conscious consumers in Amsterdam.
That Protein has also just launched a Pure and Organic Gluten Free Protein Porridge produced using the finest British gluten free oats with pumpkin seeds.
There has also been an expansion in smaller companies developing breakfast granolas high in protein, low in sugar and suitable for vegans. These include Portaferry’s Just Live a Little, which is achieving international sales, as well as Morning Glory in Bangor and Green Fingers Family in Larne.
Linwoods in Armagh has developed into a world leader in nutritious cold milled seeds with Omega 3, protein and fibres. Healthy products include flaxseed, sunflower, pumpkin, chia seeds and Goji berries.
Other innovative options include almonds, brazil nuts and walnuts for use, for example, in sprinkling on breakfast cereals.
Mount Mills in Newry has created a healthy Omega rich oil from cold-milled flaxseeds for muscle problems. Paradox in Belfast is an international leader in Omega-rich oils and capsule supplements for greater wellbeing.
Mash Direct has long been a successful producer of innovative plant-based options from potatoes and vegetables suitable for vegans and vegetarians in line with current UK campaigns to promote greater consumption, especially among children, of ‘greens’.
Finnebrogue Artisan in Downpatrick has invested in Europe’s biggest facility for the production of highly innovative plant products that now include options made without beef, pork and fish.
The progressive company, of course, is now known for its revolutionary Naked range of bacon, ham and sausages free from nitrites and other chemical ‘nasties’.
The company, founded by the late Denis Lynn, a food pioneer, now supplies all the main supermarkets and independent retailers across the British Isles.
Free’ist in Belfast has created a portfolio of snacks and confectionery made without sugar, while Rule of Crumb in Antrim is an award-winning producer of gluten free foods.
Other innovators in the expanding ready meals sector include two Kilkeel operations – Oh So Lean and Honest Food, both owned and managed by the Morgan family there.
Honest Food, with support from Invest NI, recently launched six ready meals that are free from E numbers and other ‘nasties’ as well as being high in protein and low in fat, calories, saturates and salt. Honest Food, a new business run by Connor Morgan, a director of Oh So Lean, a long-standing supplier of healthy foods also based in Kilkeel, has already won business with Sainsbury’s and Spar.
“What we’ve done is to create a novel range of healthier ready meals influenced by demand from retailers and customers for popular dishes which are rice and pasta based, such as chicken and black bean with rice and steamed vegetables, peppered chicken and saffron rice and Cajun chicken with pasta. The meals are Honest by name and honest by nature,” adds Connor.
Oh So Lean was established by local butcher Sean Morgan in 2011 to specialise on foods free from gluten, dairy, soya and with no added sugar, as well as being low in fat and sugar.
A low salt bacon has also been developed by Mr Morgan in his commitment to the creation of healthier foods. He dry-cures the bacon rubbing it by hand with salt and then uses a unique technique he has pioneered to remove the salt.
The bacon is 50 per cent lower in salt than the lowest currently on the market.
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