What should the free from aisle be free from?

For a while social media users have been sharing pictures of arguably non-free from foods in free-from aisles at supermarkets and the issue has undoubtedly led to a number of unfortunate incidents. 

Here’s MrsC with some sugar-free but wheat-containing coconut cookies at Tesco, here’s some multiple-allergen-containing choux pastries in Asda, courtesy of Debs Massey, some spelty crisps from Caz again in Tesco, and some wheaty cereals in Sainsbury’s, spotted by Nathan. 

And here’s perhaps the biggest sin: gluten-containing flour sitting between gluten-free flours, via Alex Walker. 

I asked for other examples on Twitter back in September – specifically gluten-containing – which followers had seen in free from. Here are some:

* Various Nairn’s products – some GF, many not (maybe they need to consider distinctive branding for them both? Their G oatcakes look similar to their GF oatcakes)
* Biona spelt breads – there are many misconceptions about spelt
* Food Doctor products – not usually GF
* Various Mrs Crimbles cakes (e.g. apple)
* Alpro Gingerbread Man flavoured dessert – has gluten
* Matzo crackers – always a gluten-containing cereal product
* Eat Natural bars – such as these ones, with a number of allergens

What is a free from food? 
To me: a food product which does not contain one or more food allergens which its ‘ordinary’ equivalent might normally contain.

But what’s an allergen? One of the fourteen required by law to be highlighted on labelling? Or any food which can cause an allergy? 

Sugar is easily dealt with – it’s neither an allergen immunologically, nor one as far as labelling is concerned. So should food which is only ‘sugar free’ be in free from? No. 

Another of the 14 is the collective ‘gluten-containing cereals’. This, to me, is the reason why spelt is not acceptable in ‘free from’ – a product may make a ‘wheat free’ claim but still contain gluten-containing cereals. That said, GF oats are found in free from, and oats are considered a gluten-containing cereal as far as allergen labelling is concerned too …

And what about low-lactose milk? During the discussions I had on Twitter, @dairyfree made the case that, because it was clearly not milk free, Lactofree didn’t belong in free from. It’s a fair point, but given lactose is included within the labelling requirements – the allergen is described as “milk (including lactose)” – then the situation to some extent has parallels with that of oats. A2 milk – which has both milk and lactose – should not, in my view, be in free from, although some have seen it there. 

It’s complicated, isn’t it? How do we draw a line – and where should it go? 

What goes wrong?
In my limited, social media-following experience, it’s coeliacs who generally make the errors, when errors are made. Those with severe allergies (nuts, peanuts, sesame, egg) check labelling more fearfully, I suspect, and aren’t easily lulled into security in the free from aisle (or anywhere else). Dairy avoiders know too well that a lot of free from food has milk – so they check. The GFers? Of course they check, but is it perhaps easier – when you see shelves of GF bread, biscuits, cereals, cake, crackers and the rest – to let your guard slip slightly and make the mistake of thinking It’s All For Me? 

In some ways, coeliacs are spoiled by the aisle. It is mostly for them. But there’s a mirror situation with food labelling, I think. Coeliacs sometimes assume allergen laws are mainly for them too. So when they see ‘gluten free’ on a product containing a tiny bit of barley malt extract, they’re confused. I don’t blame them: it is very confusing. 

But it pays to bear in mind that allergen labelling laws are there for those with allergies to all 14 allergens. People with a barley allergy need the barley to be highlighted – they could react to it, whereas a coeliac may not. 

Food allergen labelling isn’t just for coeliacs, clearly – and neither is the free from aisle. 

What can be done?
Alex Jane (@alexjanewalker) suggested “a friendly little sign reminding people always to double check ingredients might help?” Josephine (@yellowbr1ckroad) thought a “free from label next to the price on shelf – a logo saying GF, DF, NF wouldn’t hurt” – which I put to a couple of the supermarket free from managers, but received no reply. 

I don’t see an easy solution to this: it would need the supermarkets to work together to reach some sort of standardisation. This may also soon become redundant if, as some such as Michelle at Foods Matter predict, ‘free from’ becomes integrated with other foods. 

I think ultimately all we can do is stick to the cardinal rule – to always read every label, every time – and if that leaves you a bit dissatisfied, it may be worth remembering how much better we have it than some other nations, how far we’ve come in recent years, and how nut/peanut-free folk have it so much tougher. I’ll leave the last word to Laurna (@myallergyboy) – “free from aisles are such a nutfest you could be put off buying anything from them!”

Thanks to @sugarpuffish, @glutenfreek, @enonamouse, @nerolinice, @david_navigator, @gfreeb, @dsmith_edi, @emdel1, others mentioned above, and anyone I’ve missed … 

Footnote, 5th December: Thanks to @Dairyfree for this pic of peanut flour in the gluten free … sorry, the free from aisle … 

6 Comments

  1. sugarpuffish

    I appreciate that Coeliacs don't have it easy but I do get very frustrated when I see some on Twitter complain about certain products in FF aisle not being gluten free because those products are often dairy and egg free so I buy them. I'm happy to just read labels on packets, I do not feel I need any more guidance on the shelves. I agree A2 milk needs to find a new home away from the DF versions, I think it's a misleading product. It's bad enough when people try & tell me to I should drink Lactose free milk and I have to explain it is not suitable for my needs.

    Reply
  2. Alex G

    Do you think Lactofree should be in freeform, or elsewhere? Maybe part of the problem some have with labels is that they can be confusing if you don't 'get' them. Perhaps that'll improve with the new legislation / highlighting of ingredients etc.

    Reply
  3. sugarpuffish

    I mainly shop in Tesco or Sainsbury's and I find it can often depend on store size where products are located. I see DF Milk & Lactose free placed next to Cow milk (that goes for chilled & UHT versions) so it's not in a dedicated free from section anyway, either way doesn't bother me. I'd rather everything was just in one logically place, either you have a free from section or you don't. I buy Nakd bars, depending on what flavour you want some are in free from section others are with regular cereal bars and biscuits. Can be frustrating not knowing where a products will be positioned. Violife cheese (in my store) is with dairy cheese, I spent a week hunting for it because I naturally assumed it would be in FF section. I don't object to where it's placed, just took me by surprise as we are often creatures of habit when in supermarket.

    Reply
  4. Ideologylite

    I'll be honest, as a coeliac browsing the Free From aisles, I often feel a sense of guilt.

    We are frequently spoilt for choice (as long as that choice mostly includes biscuits and cakes…), whereas other allergy sufferers are pushed out. Almost all (I'd say >95%) of items in Free From sections are gluten-free, but almost all of them contain nuts, dairy, egg and other allergens.

    Maybe when the gluten-free trend has faded, investment across a broad range of allergen-free foods will be more balanced. Sadly, that day is not today.

    Reply
  5. Alex G

    Yes, I'd noticed that about Nakd bars before too. In an ideal world, maybe locating them in both places (both 'logical' and 'free from') would be best for everyone. I know Whole Foods Market do this. Personally, that's what I'd like, but not sure that's the direction we're moving in …

    Reply
  6. Alex G

    I'd really like to see some research into what proportions of foods in the FF aisle are GF, DF, EF, NF etc … not sure it's been done, but imagine it would be revealing. My speculative hunch is that when GF fades (I'm glad you said fades, not bursts, because that's how I see it too … ) it'll be replaced with a mix of the faddy (paleo – a redefinition of GF, in some ways) and the new kid on the block (low FODMAP). We shall see ….

    Reply

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