I recently received an email from Italy, from Caroline Hamilton, an Australian freelance journalist who lives and works in Italy – and we then had the following exchange.
It would be very interesting to know whether any of you agree with our reading of the situation in Italy – and in the UK – and how that might relate to other countries in Europe. All contributions would be welcome!
‘I came across your email while looking to find out more about gluten free product labelling in the UK. I’m researching a story that came out of my experience over the weekend talking to a number of small, artisan Italian brands making gluten free pastas, biscuits and other products.
They are all interested in exploring the UK market however many of them were reluctant to have an official seal of approval (by this I mean any mentioned of the words ‘Gluten Free’ on the packaging, or indeed the use of the internationally recognised logo for GF, for example). This really made me curious since I know from first hand experience living in Australia and the UK that producers are usually extremely keen to have these kinds of markers on their packages, and they see the difference in their sales.
By contrast, these Italian producers seemed to feel that their FreeFrom foods should be recognised by the customer first and foremost as high quality and nutritionally sound and that any Freefrom claims would be known by those who needed to know. In particular when asked about official labels they told me they thought this was simply a way of taking money from the pockets of honourable food producers who were doing their best with limited resources (as mentioned, these were small/medium businesses not the big Italian brands). They just weren’t interested. This really baffled me because in the UK the Freefrom label is a huge attraction in the marketplace.
I just wondered if you had any reflections on this from the UK perspective? Could this be a fundamentally difference approach to food culture or do you see it as part of a market in change? Perhaps in 5 years from now Italy will have it’s own Free From awards!’
To which I replied:
‘Good to make your acquaintance!
An interesting observation – and my suspicion is that it has a lot to do with food culture. Although my understanding is that Italians are quite health obsessed, they are even more food obsessed – but in a good way. By which I mean that that they understand, respect and love food, and the way that it is grown and prepared. And whatever health benefits a particular food may also confer, the important thing is its provenance and its taste.
Although of course there are some Brits and Australians who do the same, they are relatively few. Historically, in the UK at least, we lost our connection with real food during the industrial revolution of the 18th century when the majority of working people left the land for the cities where most of their food was not cooked at home but bought on the streets. The separation was reinforced by the social mores of the Victorian/Edwardian eras which banished any woman with the most modest social aspirations from the kitchen. Food shortages, wars and rationing during the mid 20th century just compounded the issue.<
Post Elizabeth David and the resurgence of artisan food production over the last 30-40 years some of us have learnt to appreciate ‘real’ food better – but it is a ‘learned’ appreciation, not an organic one as it is in Italy and other countries of southern Europe. And it is only some of us.
For most people, food is something that you buy in a supermarket, ready made. These people have little idea of how to cook – or why one should cook if one can buy food ready made. Their parents didn’t know how to cook and schools don’t teach them how to cook.
Moreover, the supermarkets, by focusing for the last 50 years on price, have conditioned the customers to do the same. So most food shopping in this country is based on price and convenience, not on the quality of the food.
Health is a crucial consideration in terms of diet – trend forecasters going back 30 years always point to ‘healthy’ as being one of the leading trends. But while an Italian housewife would always assume that good food was intrinsically healthy, I think that a Brit (and maybe an Australian too) sees health in food as a bit of an ‘add on’.
So, to get back to your original query, a ‘health tag’ on a food is seen as a good marketing move in the UK. And thanks to a slightly odd combination of circumstances (the growth of genuine allergy sufferers/coeliacs, the growth of self diagnosed food intolerants and the growth of those who actually see ‘freefrom’ food as being cleaner and healthier in many respects) ‘freefrom’ has now become equated with ‘healthy’ – or even ‘health giving’ eating. Which is why so many manufacturers are not only launching freefrom brands but are wanting to crow about it by entering free from awards, getting freefrom recognition, using freefrom logos etc.
For an Italian I suspect that adding a ‘health’ logo could be regarded as somewhat of an insult – are you suggesting that our food is not healthy then? Our food is good food – so why do we have to add ‘healthy’?…’
You will be amused to know that the discussion continued but with more of a focus on awards – and that we are now looking at the genuine possibility of Caroline launching FreeFrom Food Awards in Italy.