I’ve been wondering for some time whether food industry and consumers need a clear definition of what ‘free from food’ actually is.
Increasingly, allergy and coeliac consumers are finding products in supermarket sections or aisles signposted ‘free from’ which they are beginning to question. Sugar free products? Meat free products? Why are they in free from?
Whether right or wrong or somewhere in between, this is my rough working definition of what ‘free from food’ is:
A ‘free from’ food is a food free from one or more of the 14 declarable allergens (and/or gluten) which might ordinarily be present in a mainstream ‘non free from’ equivalent or analogue product.
So, to give some examples, bread normally contains gluten, therefore gluten-free bread is clearly a free from food. Similarly, a soya drink, manufactured to replace ordinary milk in beverages, cereals or recipes, also meets the definition, as does a sunflower-seed ‘nut butter’, which is free from peanuts and tree nuts.
So far, so reasonable, yes?
But I think — possibly — there’s scope to broaden this to include products whose manufacturers have ensured are protected from cross-contamination with allergens typically associated with that type of product, maybe with the back-up of lab tests.
For instance, is a milk-based fruit yogurt made in a nut-safe environment, not carrying any ‘may contain nuts’ warning, a ‘free from food’? As yogurt contains milk, you might argue not; but as allergy parents know all too well, finding a nut-safe sweetened yogurt is difficult, and any which exist are valuable to allergy reactive families. To them, these may well be considered ‘free from’ foods — but perhaps not by the manufacturer or stockist. Is ‘free from’ purely in the eye of the beholder?
That deserves consideration, because an arguably ‘free from’ product may occupy a space outside of the ‘free from’ section. You might be of the view that ‘everything’ is free from something, therefore everything is ‘free from’. The Free From Food Awards in principle accept products “free of at least one of the 14 major allergens” — an inclusive position which gives opportunity to products not typically found in free from sections. You might argue this is too open, but at least it is clearly defined, and individual categories carry further restrictions and criteria.
Supermarkets do not offer us a definition, and in my experiences of asking some of the major ones, they aren’t clear what their ‘free from’ criteria are supposed to be. If you’re going to have a ‘free from’ section, it not only needs to discriminate far more tightly than the FFFAs — but that discrimination needs to be explained.
Is vegan / vegetarian ‘free from’?
Although the line may appear blurred, it is when it is indisputably crossed that we run into trouble. I wrote at the start of this year about Galaxy’s range of vegan chocolate being shelved at Tesco’s free from aisle, and the potential confusion this might cause. They were free from nothing not commonly absent from chocolate, as they contained nuts and were at risk of milk / cereal contamination (they have since been declared and rebranded as gluten free).
Rebecca Smith (Glutarama) points out “free from implies something was cleverly and carefully taken out. Vegetarian foods never had ‘it’ in the first place.” This is a perspective I’d not considered — although you could argue that in making vegetarian or vegan sausages you need to take out the meat and replace it with grain or legume protein. Still, meat is not a top-14 allergen, not all non-vegan ingredients are top-14 allergens (eg honey), and the whole raison d’être of ‘free from’ — lest we forget — is allergy, intolerance and coeliac.
I know some will be shouting “you just have to read the label!” at the screen. Yes — this goes without saying. ‘Free from’ has never meant ‘allergen free’, and allergens (even the cereals containing gluten) are regularly found in ‘free from’ products. And while I’m at it, ‘vegan’ doesn’t mean ‘milk free’ and ‘egg free’ (or even ‘fish free’), as I have written about before.
But we all know consumers shopping for multiple ‘free from’ requirements often have to visit several supermarkets to get everything they need, and inconsistency between supermarkets’ — and manufacturers’ — perceptions of what does and doesn’t constitute ‘free from’ makes an already difficult job even more taxing and time-consuming. When ‘non free from’ is located in ‘free from’ it also makes error more likely, especially when well-meaning relatives shopping for gifts are concerned.
‘Free from’ consumers have a right to know what to expect when they arrive at a ‘free from’ cabinet, section or aisle — just as vegetarian consumers deserve not come across a product with rennet or gelatin in any section marked suitable for them.
The question is — what exactly should they expect, and how do we define it consistently and simply, while maintaining the usefulness of the free from aisle?
I have a few random thoughts/wishes rather than a clear answer. I’d like chocolate marketed as dairy free in the free from aisle to be safe for milk allergies, I’d really like it not to contain a warning for nuts & peanuts, many of us with lifelong milk allergies are also dealing with nuts. When there are several fabulous companies that can produce milk/wheat/nut/ & ideally soya free chocolate why go to companies that can’t for your seasonal chocolate. When you sell me safe chocolate the rest of the year don’t be offering me selection boxes & advent calendars I can’t buy!!
I expect the free from aisle to be gluten free, not sure why. Dairy & egg free cakes are a welcome addition, I’m probably just cross I can’t buy them.
My biggest bugbear is baked goods free from all the 14 declarable allergens that say they may contain nuts & peanuts. I swear at those and anything at all that contains pea
There’s rarely gluten in the free from aisle these days, but there was (is?) a soya dessert that had cereals in it, and I think an egg/milk free cake made with rye flour. Other than oat milk, it’s generally GF.
I’m with you on chocolate. There are brands out there which meet multiple criteria, such as Cocoa Libre, Plamil, NOMO and others, and instead featuring Galaxy and own-store brands with ‘may contain’ warnings is maddening …
Great piece Alex and I’m frustrated to say I don’t think there is a correct one size fits all answer to this, nor will there ever be. I do get the feeling that Free From is being used as a kind of miscellaneous isle in some supermarkets at the moment especially with the vegan wave we’re riding at the moment.
What does get my goat is with a particular supermarket starting with an ‘S’ has taken lockdown as a time to shuffle the store and give it a trendy new facelift. The free from isle there now is the Healthy and Wellbeing isle. What’s wrong with that some may say, well my daughter is not only Coeliac but also T1 Diabetic so when I see ‘healthy’ I want to scream as the gluten free selection available to her is crammed until it’s dripping with sugar.
As I am intolerant to dairy, eggs, potato (yep I’m weird) and increasingly struggling with onion, pea and garlic, I could argue that the free from isle isn’t free from at all in many cases. However, it is 100% down to the individual to manage their dietary and health needs (exhausting as it may be) but stores have a responsibility to make things as clear as possible and as trends come and go (or stick around for longer than expected). They can not expect loyal customers, who may have been shopping with them for years, and initially understood the free from isle to be predominantly gluten free, to keep up with the changes the store makes to it’s new stock and ambiguous shelf placing.
One way I look at it is to imagine the free from isle as a section in a library. You can have sub categories but those sub categories aren’t dotted all over the section. It’s a very simplistic imagery I’m using here and yes it’s flawed but it’s a start right…..right???
I agree, Rebecca – it’s become a miscellaneous aisle, it’s become a generic ‘health and wellbeing’ aisle, it’s become home to products that we now question whether they are really free from, and there’s little consistency between the supermarkets. I don’t know … maybe this will actually end up helping people more, as it will compel them to be even *more* careful than they usually are. Who knows. And maybe you’ve hit upon something there: maybe a library system of some kind could work … although all those sections and numbers are only really understood by highly qualified librarians rather than the ordinary consuming public!
haha, well in a former life I was a Careers Library Officer, not quite the dewy system but similar, maybe that’s where my brain was going with that!
Oh really?! Actually I CAN see you sternly sssshhhhing loud immature Italians like me sniggering at the erotic fiction section ….
I personally see “Free From” foods as foods that are free of an allergen that it would normally contain. So things like Bread and Pasta without Gluten or things like Cakes and Milks without Dairy or things like Mayonnaise and Salad Cream without Eggs as some examples.
Unfortunately the “Free From” section in some shops seems to have turned in to a diet section or health food section. I know of one shop where they have a Free From section but most of the stuff in there is either Vegan or Vegetarian or Halal or Reduced Fat/Salt/Sugar but is still full of common allergies. This seems to be a common occurrence these days.
Personally i think “May Contain” labelled products being in the Free From section is perfectly fine as many people choose to ignore the “May Contain” warnings anyway as the risk is so tiny. For example a good friend of mine has a daughter who has a serious allergy to Peanuts and all eight Tree Nuts but yet my friend still gives her daughter products with “May Contain Nuts” warnings on it. She said to me that the risk is so tiny and companies are extremely careful to avoid any cross contamination so the warning is only for legal reasons and is not worth worrying about. Her daughter has never had any reaction from “May Contain Nuts” products despite her serious anaphylaxis allergy. So i think that many people just avoid products that actually contain the allergen in the ingredients but are happy to consume “May Contain” products. I would still consider “May Contain” products as Free From foods.
Perhaps it is time for the FSA to actually write up a legal definition of “Free From” and what it means. The fact that it is so vague and can be used for anything must certainly cause a lot of confusion for shoppers especially if they are new to dealing with allergies.
Thanks for such a lengthy comment. Agree that a definition – be it from the FSA and/or other bodies – would be great, but disagree that the risk of ‘may contain’ is necessarily tiny. It is not necessarily for legal reasons: there is no legislation concerning ‘may contain’, although it could well be for heightened concern at litigation. I would advise your friend to change her policy on ‘may contain’ – perhaps talk to Anaphylaxis Campaign or Allergy UK, whose policies are that ‘may contain’ foods should be avoided by those with severe allergy. Manufacturers are meant to use a precautionary allergen warning when there is a real and genuine risk of cross-contamination.