On novel vegan proteins, Oatly vs dairy, free-from — and co-operation

Vegan protein innovation is progressing, and with it the promotion of veganism as the solution to end at least some of the environmental and health woes that have befallen us.

But where do food allergies come in this sometimes controversial debate?


New vegan proteins

This online presentation, organised by the Anaphylaxis Campaign, highlighted a number of problems. 

First speaker Carole Bingley, a Technical Specialist for Product Innovation at RSSL, told us about novel proteins being developed from grains, seeds and legumes — such as modified mung bean protein in the innovative US product Just Egg (“eggs, reimagined with plants”) — and more worryingly about ‘precision fermentation’ …

This refers to using GM microorganisms to produce nature-identical animal proteins — including egg and and milk proteins.

The first commercial example is Perfect Day‘s fermented whey protein ice cream in the US: an extraordinary “animal-free dairy” product suitable for vegans — but not those with milk allergy. It appears as “non-animal whey protein” in ingredients, with a “Contains: milk protein” advisory label — meeting US labelling rules.

But how would it appear under UK regulations? The FSA have told me they are looking into this, and we may need an answer soon, because UK start up Better Dairy is currently using the technology too. 

Allergy consultant and trainer Hazel Gowland picked up the baton in the third talk, addressing the problem of ‘second tier’ food allergens — mainly peas and other legumes — being increasingly used by not only vegan manufacturers but makers of fitness supplements too.

Hazel made many excellent points, one being that protein technology is potentially creating novel food allergen components. Proteins are complex molecules: reconfigure or reassemble them and strings of atoms normally concealed and protected from direct exposure to the immune system may suddenly become accessible to it. This has happened with wheat isolates and hydrolysed wheat proteins, which can crop up in both food and cosmetics.

Vegan analogues are often made to look like meat, she warned, and these can trick the unwary; their ingredients labels can contain over a hundred words. Errors are being made by consumers understandably assuming ‘vegan’ implies ‘milk free’ / ‘egg free’ (it does not), and these are extra challenges the allergy community has to face. 


Battle of the lobbies — vegan vs dairy

Instead of looking for solutions to problems on the horizon, certain sectors within the vegan lobby and the dairy industry instead appear to be more intent in harming one another. 

This is being played out currently at European level, where use of the terms ‘milk’, ‘cheese’ and ‘yoghurt’ are already restricted to mammalian milk products. A further EU amendment, supported by the dairy lobby, is currently under proposal which would make rules even tighter, banning terms of comparison, such as “yoghurt-style” or “cheese replacement” — and potentially also “milk free” statements, which would be detrimental to allergy folk. 

The vegan lobby is not pleased. As is the tendency these days, a petition has been launched. At the time of writing, 150,000 have signed up to “stop plant-based dairy censorship”. One of its supporters is Oatly, known for their popular oat-based drinks, yoghurt and ice creams.

I’m a fan of the products, but not of the marketing tactics favoured by this Swedish brand, who have launched a provocative advertising campaign, presenting milk as a dietary bad guy, and its consumers as behind-the-times, middle-aged fathers with a drink problem. It has accused the dairy industry of treating Oatly’s consumers as ‘stupid‘, and has itself been questioned about using inappropriate figures to support at an attack on dairy farming’s environmental impact — to which a farmer called Tom Haddon has given them a polite but fact-filled rebuke

On Twitter, Oatly are responding to all, from either side of the debate, who communicate with them — generally politely, occasionally condescendingly — and regularly talk of how their aim is to ‘start a conversation’ about environmental issues. There has been backlash: they have been criticised for accepting funding from firms accused of having links with Amazon deforestation, but have defended themselves by arguing that the issue should not be seen as “dangerously black and white“.

And yet in attacking the dairy industry, in portraying oat products as better, they are presenting the debate very much in black and white. Oatly are not so much starting a conversation, as demanding consumers pick a side. 

As we’ve seen in politics, tribalism does not take us to good places. When groups become hardline, feel entitled, are inflexible, goad the ‘opposition’, and demand their ideology takes centre stage, those moderates who actually deserve it get sidelined. 

There will always be a dairy industry, and a vegan industry. They are both important to many. 

But so is the ‘free from’ sector, which overlaps with both. The casualties of the bickering are those in the middle — the allergy and hypersensitive community — many of whom need dairy products and/or vegan (and allergy-safe) products in order to meet nutritional requirements difficult to obtain due to the dietary restrictions they live with. 


Initiatives for Co-operation

If you’re as thoroughly narked as I am with any entity which promotes itself by creating an ‘other side’ and dissing it, then perhaps you’d instead like to support two initiatives which are all about co-operation and mutual respect.

The first is the Free From Food Business Hub — a new private Facebook group for free-from food professionals, launched by my colleagues at the Free From Food Awards, for producers, buyers, technologists, food scientists, dietitians, consultants … anyone, virtually, working professionally in free from or related fields. It’s a place to share ideas, experiences, tips and contacts, ask for (and provide) advice, or discuss any news or developments in the industry which may impact all those working in it. 

I’m a member, but don’t let that deter you … 

And the second is another awesome idea — FreeFromuary.

You guessed it: a month dedicated to the promotion of all ‘free from’, and the brainchild of Nicole Gardner, Co-Founder of Love Free From, and Free From Festival Founder Margarita Kalma. Participating brands are offering discounts on their products throughout the month, and its aims are ones we can get behind: to support the brands making the efforts to produce specialist foods, and to unify the community ‘no matter the allergy/intolerance’. 

Read more about the aims of the initiative here

And find the names of the participating brands here. There’s a lot on social media accounts too. Hashtag #FreeFromuary, of course … 

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