Ten years ago, at the Allergy & Gluten Free Show, as it was then called, you might have found me at Stand 25A, working for my long-term colleagues at Foods Matter.
Alongside us on one, or was it two, of the days was Lucinda Bruce Gardyne — who was just on the cusp of becoming the free from superstar she is now, as she’d just launched her new, game-changing Genius bread into Tesco.
I recall my duties were to sell subscriptions to Foods Matter Magazine — as it then was — and as you can see from our exhibitor listing, Michelle of FM saw fit to offer me up as some sort of health counsellor, for which I can only offer a decade-late apology to any visitors who left our Stand more emotionally troubled than when they arrived.
Lucinda, meanwhile, had intended to sign and sell copies of her book, How to Cook for Food Allergies, but their delivery for some reason failed to make it to the venue on time, and instead she took to offering samples of her bread to impressed visitors. I can still picture the shock and delight of coeliacs who’d never tasted a bread anywhere near as good as Genius. More recently diagnosed coeliacs may not be aware of how revolutionary her innovation was at the time.
The 2009 Show Guide emerged from a pile of notes, clippings and other materials that I’d been meaning to sort through and recycle, and what jumped out at me most as I flicked through it was the modest floorplan of only 60 exhibitors.
Among them are names you might expect to see, such as the charities (Anaphylaxis UK, Coeliac UK, Asthma UK, the National Eczema Society), the long-standing, loyally free-from brands (Kinnerton, Lactofree, Plamil Foods, Orgran, Provamel) and the usual sprinkling of, let’s say, medically questionable exhibitors too (YorkTest, Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, NAET Allergy Elimination, Association of Systemic Kinesiology).
Note too the absence of supermarkets and the relatively low numbers of gluten-free exhibitors. There just weren’t that many of them around …
Ten years on, so much as changed. The Allergy + Free From Show, as it has now become, was taken on by the fine team at f2f events, who modernised the event and engineered an extraordinary expansion — not only in the number of exhibitors, and in the addition of co-located shows (Bloom, just V show), but broadening out to other locations outside London too. Of course they have been helped by the growth in the gluten free / dairy free market, as well as latterly the vegan expansion, but nevertheless exhibitors need to be romanced and secured and supported and managed, and the team do a fantastic job, year in, year out, of doing just that with hundreds of exhibitors — over 400 at Olympia this year, I was reliably informed by Tom Treverton, the Show’s Event Director, just yesterday — not to mention keeping this year’s impressive tally of 37,379 visitors happy over the three days … Heaven forbid they run out of show bags!
For the first time in years, I wasn’t working at the show, so visited as an ordinary punter. I didn’t come across a huge amounts of new products this year, perhaps because I mainly use social media to learn of them, but there were a few names still unfamiliar to many in free from — such as Simpleas Snacks (pea-based snacks), Sproud (oat and pea milk alternative), NOMO (14-allergens-free chocolate), Naturinni (eddoes-based vegan ‘bacon’), Qwrkee (vegan jerky, pea milk-alternative) …
After receding in the interim years, I was a little disappointed that the pseudo-science exhibitors appeared to be making a slight comeback — alkaline water, naturopathy, crystals, bioresonance. “We are all technically allergic to EMF (electro-magnetic field) radiation,” I was told at the Energy Dots stand. But, to take a philosophical approach, I guess you could argue the woo-merchants’ presence is only reflective of the real world out there, especially online. Anyone who has to live free from — or who has to live with any medical or health issue — has to learn to navigate a market where not everything targeted at you is either suitable for you, or appropriate for you, or beneficial to you … or indeed anyone.
More positively, what the Allergy Show has become, in an increasingly social media-based world of free from, is an opportunity to put faces to names, and strengthen the sense of community many free from’ers feel from online support. There is no place like it for trying-before-you-buy, to question manufacturers about their production protocols, their plans for the future, and for the chance to tell them what products you would like to see, for capitalising on special show deals, or to stock up on favourite products given supermarket stocks of free from can be and regularly are temperamental — that’s assuming one is accessible to you in the first place. The access to experts — both speakers after their talks and seminars, or else available to be consulted on various stands — is surely second to none.
The f2f team have overseen all this, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to achieve — and let’s not forget that entry is free. We should not only be thankful and grateful to them, but we should see supporting the event as almost a duty — another small way which we can give back to the free from community of which we are a part, and which gives us improvements in our quality of living, and for many of us a literal living.
The next event — The Allergy and Free From Show Winter — will be held 2nd & 3rd November 2019 in Liverpool, followed by the Allergy and Free From Show Scotland in Glasgow on 7th & 8th March 2020. The show returns to Olympia, London, next year on 3rd–5th July. Click here for more info on all events.