We need allergens in ‘free from’ food

I’m a fan of brands offering products which are free from all 14 declarable allergens and allergen groups. To mark my admiration, I even launched a Twitter account dedicated to them. There’s a page dedicated to them on this website too. 

But I don’t agree with views held in some quarters of the free from community that these are the only products which should be considered ‘free from foods’ and therefore find a home in the supermarket free from aisle. 

And I’m concerned with the idea that I see being put forward that the continual removal of allergens in free from food is the necessary way for the industry to go, and nobody appears to be challenging it. 

Well, I’d like to challenge it. Because while 14-free is great, it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Sometimes, 1-free — done well — is great too. 


Why we need allergens

The first reason, is nutrition. We cannot pretend some allergens aren’t highly nutritious — fish and nuts, for example, are full of good stuff. 

The second is straightforward preference: some ‘free from’ folk want to eat allergens. I’m genuinely surprised that this seems to be being forgotten. Coeliacs — many of whom only need to concern themselves with gluten, and not necessarily the 14 allergens in their purest sense — may not give a hoot about other ingredients (or “may contain” warnings for that matter) provided the big G is absent and not a cross-contamination risk. 

And this problem is very real: coeliacs are sometimes struggling to find products which haven’t also been made milk-free, even when they are milk tolerant cheese-lovers. I sense that some feel selfish about wanting allergens, because they feel it’s going against the spirit of the community. It isn’t. This should not be or feel a guilty pleasure.

The third, is that in pushing out 14 foods and food groups, manufacturers will be forced to turn to the same ingredients again and again — such as coconut and beans. This risks an over-reliance on these foods, and potentially an increase in allergies to them, as we’re already witnessing with broad beans, peas and chickpeas, which are now common in ‘free from’. And with some calling for these foods to be added to the list of declarable allergens, would they then too become ingredients non grata? Will all ‘free from’ foods be expected to be free of 18, 19, 20 or more allergens? Whatever will be left to eat? 

It should be clear to anyone that these expectations are not sustainable nor mutually compatible. We need allergens; we need allergen consumption. Mothers are advised to gradually introduce allergens into the diet of their children in order to induce tolerance. Women need to eat allergens when breastfeeding, as this may benefit the nursing child. They’re good for us. 


Inclusive is exclusive

I think the modern holy word ‘inclusivity’ is in part to blame for this situation.

It is not possible to be ‘100% inclusive’ because someone, somewhere, will be allergic to any ingredient you care to name. Striving to avoid every last one would merely alienate vast sections of the community — being so inclusive that you become exclusive. 

For inclusivity to be genuinely inclusive it has to be inclusive of difference — some need 1-free, some need 14-free, and all variations in between and beyond.

It’s clear that there is not sufficient choice for people with multiple allergies in the ‘free from’ aisle, and I do not know what the solution to that problem is.

But I do know what the solution is not: and that’s banishing products from the ‘free from’ aisle that some consumers want to find there and shaming the companies who make them for not being inclusive enough.


  1. ruthholroyd

    I’ve found that since Covid the number of products free from more than one allergen has seriously dwindled anyway. Of the few 14 free from products, I buy them all. i have to. There really aren’t that many. I buy the Nomo chocolate and Creative nature and a few others. From my experience checking labels, the majority seem to contain major food allergens as normal ingredients. I don’t feel that i’m included in many situations, the event which can’t cater for me, the ‘free from cakes’ that contain milk. That’s fine with me, I’ve learned to live with it over a lifetime. I just bring my own food and get on with it. And am very grateful to the brands who are able to eliminate milk and soya protein from their products as well as wheat and nuts. There are plenty of other sources of these ingredients for those who are not allergic. They can buy EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING they choose. I have not really shopped with being just coeliac in mind though, however they can jolly well go out and buy milk, cheese and everything else to eat. There are plenty of great gluten free brands out there with milk in and nuts because I regularly put them back on the shelves.
    The few brands striving are for us, the multiple allergic. They are not for coeliacs, although coeliacs can enjoy them. I just don’t really get this argument if I’m honest. I generally cook most of my food from scratch because it’s cheaper and because I am allergic to so many foods. I don’t have so much sympathy for people with one food allergen complaining that they would like allergens reintroduced into free from food. Stop moaning and look for something you do like because I think there are a not of us struggling to find anything in the shops.

    1. admin (Post author)

      I think what some people are asking for is a better balance: people with one food allergen are asking that they would like allergens reintroduced into *some* free from foods, not all. What’s your view on suggestions that foods with any allergens should not be considered ‘free from’ and should be removed from the ‘free from’ aisle?

  2. George Salt

    I agree. As a Coeliac it can be frustrating when the gluten-free choice is restricted to the Awkward Bunny Special(tm) – although this is generally more of an issue with chain restaurant menu options than supermarket shelves. The frustration it causes me in the supermarket is that by being Free From several ingredients a product range restricts my option to something that contains more highly processed ingredients than I would choose, or it contains an ingredients that I would prefer to reduce/avoid consumption of. I can spread mayonnaise and put a slice of cheese on my gluten-/dairy/egg-free bread to make a sandwich, but I can’t avoid the highly processed technical ingredients that enable the bread to be DF and EF as well as GF.

    I do understand that this is not the same for everyone, and this is where choice is essential on the Free From shelves. All Free From consumers are faced with the same problem of narrow choice – there may appear to be twelve different versions of a product to choose from, but the reality is that it’s four different brands copying the same 2 products and exactly the same allergen exclusion combination. Where’s the innovation in Free From? – the barometer of the lack of this is when consumers get get genuinely excited about GF dry macaroni.

    1. admin (Post author)

      Fully agree that choice is essential, and also that perhaps innovation in free from has stalled in recent years. The trouble is that any innovation is likely to involve increased processing / processed ingredients, so there is – i imagine – always going to be a trade off.


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