When vegan isn’t free from but a supermarket doesn’t care

News of the release of Galaxy‘s vegan chocolate range came in November and it was quickly announced Tesco would be the first to stock it.

Three chocolate bars were launched — Smooth Orange, Caramelised Hazelnut, Caramel & Sea Salt. The products list allergens hazelnuts in the ingredients, plus ‘may contain’ for milk, cereals containing gluten, and nuts, with an explicit ‘not suitable for people with milk allergy’ warning.

All carry the Vegan Society trademark, as this is not withheld from products potentially cross-contaminated with animal-sourced ingredients, provided other conditions are met. This is an ongoing controversy and confusion in itself among vegans and those with food allergies, which has been a problem for years, and remains unresolved.

But when it became apparent Tesco were stocking the products in their ‘free from’ section, eyebrows were raised on social media, including those of a well known face from the telly

What are they actually free from, people wondered? As far as those with many food allergies and coeliac disease were concerned, they weren’t free from milk, nor nuts, nor gluten, and therefore unsuitable.

This was clearly a foolish decision. Several questioned it via Twitter, as did I. Feeble responses followed — Galaxy highlighted the products’ vegan-approved status and ‘informed choice’ allergen labelling, while Tesco pointed out the products were free from egg, as if the confectionary landscape is rich in examples of ovum-flavoured chocolate. 

 

Fruitless enquiries …

After Christmas I contacted both Galaxy and Tesco press departments directly to try get an insight into this.

Neither approach proved productive.

I asked Galaxy whether they had asked to be stocked in the aisle. There was fluff in response — ‘we take allergen labelling seriously’ and the like — but despite promising to get answers their final correspondence told me they “do not have anything further to add at this time”.

I hoped for better with Tesco but no. Three times I asked to speak with someone, and twice explicitly requested Tesco’s working definition of ‘free from’, and the criteria applicable to products in that section. 

My every email was responded to, but none of my questions were acknowledged, let alone answered. I was given information “as background and not for quoting”, most of which obvious, concerning Galaxy’s approach to labelling, but little else. I wish I could share it all with you, but can’t. The whole exchange was boggling. 

Tesco won Retailer of the Year for five successive years in the Free From Food Awards, and deservedly so too, from my seat as a regular judge. This is a depressing and frustrating response from a supermarket which has done so much for those on restricted diets. 

 

What is Free From?

Given Tesco is unwilling and possibly unable to define what ‘free from’ is, here’s my working definition of what I see it as and believe it should be.

A ‘free from’ food is a food which is free from at least one of the fourteen declarable food allergens which would ordinarily be present in a mainstream equivalent of that food.

Free from foods, by this definition, include gluten/wheat-free bread, almond milk, and sunflower seed butter, to give three examples. 

There is an argument for including foods subject to strict allergen controls and testing, and which are free of any ‘may contain’ warnings, and I think that’s an idea to explore — although Galaxy’s vegan trio fails on that front too. 

 

Why does all this matter?

Because if we can’t confidently define what ‘free from’ should be, and the meaning of ‘vegan’ is unclear (there is no legal definition, and The Vegan Society and the Vegetarian Society use different ones), we will see more confusion and increased risk to people with food allergies to egg and milk, and those serving them, who may assume vegan means milk/egg-allergy safe, when it does not. I tweeted a thread on these issues recently, so won’t repeat what I said there

The blurring of vegan and ‘free from’ in the ‘free from’ aisle as exemplified in this case is dangerous. It’s different, but am reminded of the tragic case involving Morrison’s milk-containing chocolate in the ‘free from’ aisle last year. 

It matters too because retailers and manufacturers should not be ducking questions whose answers may not necessarily portray them in the positive light of their choosing. 

Tesco’s refusal to so much as acknowledge the questions I was asking, let alone agree to speak with me as a journalist, mirrors the tactics of right-wing governments — deflect, ignore questions, and deny access, to those who may not be prepared to sing praise. I can only wonder whether a writer approaching Tesco with a view to showcasing their latest gluten-free bakery might have been given all the information on a platter with a hamper in the post to boot. 

And it matters because it insults brands who are playing this game far, far better than Galaxy. Look at the photo above. Galaxy has been cast alongside NOMO chocolate — who launched last year as both a vegan and ’14 free’ brand, safe for those with food allergies to any of the main declarable allergens.

I wonder what the team at NOMO might be thinking about being given the same prominence and respect as a far, far lesser ‘free from’ range, but one whose manufacturers are blessed with a greater profile and budget. What motivation does it give them, or any other multiple ‘free from’ brand out there for that matter, to continue to develop products suitable for people with all manner of food sensitivities?

What is the point, when your ‘free from’ standards can fall as low as Galaxy’s, and yet you can still make the grade? 

10 Comments

  1. ruthholroyd

    It’s very confusing isn’t it… when being proud to be vegan and ‘egg free’ which makes sense, but then not being milk free, which as a vegan product does not. For myself, i shall continue to be very wary of anything marked as ‘vegan’ as these could be potentially very dangerous for me with a dairy milk allergy. On the other hand, I have to admit to an addiction to NOMO chocolate. It lasts five minutes in my house. So thank you NOMO and I’m not sure what to say to Tesco or Galaxy. I love Tesco’s freefrom range but don’t feel this product belongs there. It’s hard enough finding the right products, checking labels etc. without having things that are not great for hardly anyone shopping in that aisle! Great post Alex.

    Reply
    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Thanks Ruth. Yes, although I like some but not all of the NOMO chocolate personally, I do think from a free from perspective they deserve high praise.

      Reply
  2. Samuel Johnson

    Is it really a problem though to put may contain products in Free From sections? I know they have to say it for legal reasons but is there actually much chance of getting a reaction? Do many people with allergens actually avoid the may contain stuff? I am curious as personally i am fine with it myself?

    I am allergic to Dairy and Gluten and Soya (and i do get very sick from eating them so they are all quite serious allergies) but yet i will happily eat anything that says it may contain Dairy/Gluten/Soya in it or that says it is unsuitable for Dairy/Gluten/Soya allergies due to the manufacturing methods or anything like that. As long as there is no actual Dairy/Gluten/Soya in the ingredients list then i am more than happy to eat it. I have been doing this for years and never had a problem or any reactions from these products. I have eaten these very same Galaxy Chocolates that this article is about and have been fine. I have also had hundreds of other products (like Walkers Crisps for an example) that say may contain Dairy/Gluten/Soya and also been fine.

    I think in reality these warnings are only there for legal reasons to stop people taking them to court in the very rare chance that there is major contamination. I think the real risks are tiny. Companies these days take extra care to clean machines properly and do everything to avoid cross contamination so i think actually getting a reaction from such a product is extremely unlikely. It is all just about legalities.

    Another problem (regardless of whether or not may contain items should be put in the Free From section) is that there is no definition of what the Free From section should contain. You could say that these Free From sections are for anything that is Free From at least one of the 14 allergens that must be declared but then that would mean that almost everything in the supermarket could go in this section. Obviously it is not reasonable to do the opposite either and only allow items that are Free From all 14 allergens that must be declared as that would mean very few products (most of the Free From products even contain some of these allergens) and i have never known anyone to be allergic to all 14 of these allergens. So there is really no clarity with this.

    Even if you believe that may contain items shouldn’t be in the Free From section it could be argued that these chocolates belong in it because they are Soya Free (and have no may contain warnings for Soya either) as many chocolate companies use Soya Lecithin instead of Sunflower Lecithin in their products. So it could be said that these chocolates do indeed belong here.

    Like many things to do with allergens it is all a mess and there is not much clarity. Interesting blog post though. I have only just found your blog and enjoyed reading your articles. I am quite interested in these sorts of things.

    Reply
    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Hi Samuel. I don’t necessarily have a problem with ‘may contain’ in the free from aisle, and I do provide a working definition of what ‘free from’ is or at least should be, and why Galaxy chocolate doesn’t meet the definition, in my view. That said, I think you make a good point regarding soya, but soya is quite an unusual allergen in some regards, and most people can tolerate soya lecithin.
      Most people with immediate (IgE) response food allergies (hives, wheezing etc) would avoid ‘may contain’. You’re lucky if you’ve never reacted. Perhaps you have a gastrointestinal form? Or is it food intolerance? Some people with those forms worry less about ‘may contain’. Best wishes, Alex.

      Reply
  3. Enola Scrivens

    I work for Enjoy Life Foods here in the States. ALL our products are certified free of the top 14 allergens. See us at http://www.enjoylifefoods.com and we would love to dialogue about gaining more distribution, particularly in the UK. Everyone should have the right to eat freely.

    Reply
    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Are the 14 you’re referring to the EU 14? I think they may not quite overlap — i seem to recall having this discussion elsewhere on social media before. Oats (even GF) are a top 14 in Europe. I can’t really help with distribution, but if you drop me a line, I’ll see what I can do and perhaps forward your query on to someone. Choose contact above.

      Reply
      1. Enola Scrivens

        Hi Alex, Yes, we are free of wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish, dairy, egg, sesame, sulfites, lupine, soy, casein, mustard and crustaceans. Certified Gluten Free (first company to become so by the Gluten Free Certification Oroganization in US), Kosher, Halal, 90% of products are Vegan certified and we have 6 products Paleo certified. We also have 26 products FODMAP certified for Irritable Bowel sufferers. Would love to have you spread word or if you know of some solid distributors.

        Reply
        1. Enola Scrivens

          Sorry, forgot to address oats: we are oat free with exception of our new breakfast ovals which have Purity Protocol gluten free rolled oats. Purity Protocol test down to much smaller than standard

          Reply
  4. James Wallis

    free from should mean free from all not one or two but all allergens. if it’s only 1 then it should be “allergen here” free i.e. gluten free, milk free, soy free but not free from if only 1 or 2. it would help all with allergies.

    Reply
    1. Alex G (Post author)

      I think that would over-restrict the free from section to just a few products. It’s already frustrating for people with multiple food allergies — with wheat not among them — that the main characteristic in ‘free from’ is wheat/gluten free.

      Reply

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