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?