There is no doubt that the quality of the products entered into the 2016 FreeFrom Food Awards has continued to improve. It is rare now that one meets a product which is obviously ‘free from’ anything; more often than not they are either indistinguishable from ‘normal’ products or, in many cases (batters for anything deep fried for example), they are better.
The nutritional profile for freefrom foods in general has also continued to improve. This is not universal and there are areas (baked goods in particular) where the ingredients list remains scarily long and incomprehensible. But while this is understandable in bread products (making ‘normal’ bread without the benefit of wheat flour or gluten remains a manufacturing challenge which can rarely, if ever, be achieved without the help of some additives), it really is not excusable in cake and biscuits, especially if you are using eggs.
Of course, using eggs is not to everyone’s liking but, unfortunately for those who are egg allergic, or who have children who are, there are relatively few of them compared to those wanting to avoid gluten or dairy. So proportionately fewer manufacturers are making efforts to exclude them. Moreover, eggs do contribute significantly to many of the products in which they are found so are more difficult to substitute. None the less, we were pleased to see that more manufacturers had obviously taken the problem on board and were excluding egg where possible.
All too often, I fear, the same cannot be said for soya. It should be common knowledge amongst those making foods for people with allergies that around 30% of those who are dairy allergic/intolerant are also soya intolerant. So substituting soya for dairy every time really does not make sense, especially when there are now so many alternatives around. Even more frustrating for those with soya sensitivities are the number of companies who simply don’t think and replace soya lecithin with sunflower only to add dab of soya flour right at the end!
Scrutinising of your ingredients’ list to make sure that you exclude any allergens which are not vital to the product is another area on which budding freefrom producers need to focus. As the freefrom market continues to grow and the definite trend towards cleaner products with fewer major allergens develops, they can seriously maximise their potential market by culling all unnecessary allergens from their products – and often improving the nutritional profile in the process.
I love coconut and I think that the coconut products that have come onto the market over the last several of years are amazing – especially for those who are both dairy and soya sensitive. However, we are verging on coconut overkill at the moment. It would be an exaggeration say that 50% of this year’s entries to the awards were coconut based – but it did sometimes feel that way!
So while I hope and am sure that we will go on getting new and innovative coconut products, manufacturers do need to be aware – and aware not only of flooding the market but of the fact that the more coconut we eat, the sooner we will start to see people developing coconut sensitivities…
Labelling – oh dear, oh dear, of dear………
Looking back, I see that labelling was an issue last year but it was far greater an issue this year and we actually had to disqualify a handful of entries because their labelling was not only bad but actually incorrect and therefore illegal.
Using the required terms
As Alex and I discussed a few weeks ago, now that we have very specific regulations that protect those wishing avoid certain foods we must stick to them. Approximate is not good enough – it only causes confusion. So ‘free from gluten’ when the specified term is ‘gluten-free’ is unacceptable; non-dairy when the agreed term for all milk-related products is ‘milk’ is not acceptable.
Failing to include ingredients at all
This happened with a couple of ‘kits’ which included various different ingredients some of which were themselves part of a multi pack and had lost their outer sleeve and therefore their ingredients list.
And, most frustrating of all, although one can understand why the manufacturers are doing it…
Claiming to be nut/dairy/gluten etc free and then carrying a ‘may contain nuts/dairy/gluten’ warning
There were a horrible number of entries which did just this – made an allergen free claim and then put a warning for that very same allergen on the pack.
The perceived need arises when the product does not include nuts/dairy/gluten/egg etc in the ingredients but is manufactured in a factory where these ingredients are used – although we have come across manufacturers who understand the issue of contamination so poorly that they will slap on a ‘may contain’ warning when the risk is so small as to be risible.
It also happens when conscientious manufacturers are unable to verify all of their suppliers and therefore feel that they cannot make a ‘freefrom’ claim. The more helpful ones state this on pack and, depending the ingredient involved, the allergic consumer can then decide themselves whether or not to buy/eat the product.
But, however understandable the warnings may be, it is frustrating in the extreme for the consumer who has no way of knowing whether the product is actually presenting them with a risk or not. It also gives out a very confusing message to that ever growing number of freefrom consumers who are not allergic but who are choosing to eat freefrom because they think it is better for the planet, healthier, kinder to animals etc. To them it just suggests that freefrom manufactures do not know what they are doing and are unable to control their productions lines – not a great way to build trust in your product!
Dedicated manufacture and sensible regulation
Obviously, the best solution (although it does not solve the supplier problem) is for freefrom products to be manufactured in dedicated nut/dairy/gluten/egg etc free facilities – and that is the way that many of them are going. But this is expensive and it is likely to be a long time yet before we get all freefrom products made in dedicated plants.
The alternative is to impose the sort of very specific regulations that have now been imposed on ingredients labelling so that everyone knows where they stand. However, for all kinds of reasons that I will not go into here, that is not likely to happen in the immediate future.
So the only option that remains is for the industry to come together to find an industry wide way to assess, measure and declare risk that is sensible and workable but still protects the consumer. Whether this is possible or not we are not sure – but we are working on it…. For more, see Allergen Safe.org.
Meanwhile….. We feel that the best option for a manufacturer who does not make their products in a totally ‘freefrom’ dedicated facility is for them to state that ‘the factory also uses the relevant allergen’ or that the factory does not use the relevant allergen but that they cannot guarantee all of their suppliers. This still does not give any clear message about the degree of risk involved but is better that no message at all!!
All that said, the quality, variety and inventiveness of the products entered this year was really remarkable – as you will all find out very soon as the shortlist will be published on Wednesday of next week! Check in to the the Awards site for more details on Wednesday 10th – Ash Wednesday – even though we hope that it will be a day of celebration, not of penance, for very many of our entrants!