Biochemist and industry expert Dr Gill Hart takes a look at “Free-From” foods and asks whether these convenience foods are really as healthy as they are portrayed
The number of foods marketed as “Free-From”, for example gluten, wheat or dairy free is continuing to rise globally. This is partly through awareness due to improved labelling regulations, but also to rising health concerns, knowledge of specific food intolerances in the diet and the search for conventional yet good-tasting “Free-From” products.
In the UK, interest has also been driven by the major supermarkets; last year, Tesco, Sainsbury, and Waitrose all extended their “Free-From” food ranges including bakery and cereal products, sauces, pastas, milk alternatives, desserts, spreads, fish and meat products. In addition, more and more specialist suppliers are reaping the benefit; those with tailored “Free-From” ranges such as Mrs Crimbles gluten, wheat and dairy-free bakery lines, as well as alternative products from mainstream suppliers, such as Young’s Seafood’s launch of its first gluten, wheat and dairy-free fish fingers.
The choice available now is staggering, and food manufacturers, in producing products that are guaranteed “Free-From”, are having to think more and more creatively to ensure that the customer still gets what they expect in terms of the foods’ flavour and structure. What’s taken out has to be replaced with something else! For example methyl cellulose (E461) is used to add fibre and bulk to gluten-free breads and as a thickener in dairy-free ice creams; all very well, but this compound is indigestible and can cause gut symptoms similar to those caused by food intolerances* such as gluten-intolerance. Why swap one problem for another?
The solution? Well, all pre-packed foods must give a list of ingredients, so as you check the ingredients on a food product to see if it contains the food you need to avoid, you should also check the other ingredients too. It can take time to do your homework, but I have found the Foods Matter https://www.foodsmatter.com/ and the Food Standards Agency https://www.food.gov.uk/ websites really helpful when I have tried to find out whether I should be concerned about locust bean gum (E410) or carrageenan (E407). I also check out levels of salt, sugars and fats on any labelling; “Free-From” doesn’t necessarily translate as “healthy”. Of course, foods that aren’t pre-packed don’t need to be labelled with the same information as pre-packed foods, so you might not be able to check the ingredients. These foods include those sold from a restaurant, bakery, deli counter or salad bar, sandwiches sold to be eaten straight away, and foods weighed and sold loose.
What about other solutions? It is well known that whenever a food is processed it loses some of its natural goodness. Furthermore, processed foods are not as easily digested as natural foods. By eating whole, natural, unprocessed foods you will get more vitamins and minerals. How do you define unprocessed foods? Well one way is to think about how many steps it takes for that food to get to your plate. For example, if you eat a bowl full of strawberries, nuts and seeds how many steps did it take to get those foods in your bowl? What about your wheat and gluten free muesli? Or your dairy-free ice cream? I really don’t know how many steps that would be for all the ice cream ingredients to get processed, packaged and delivered ready to scoop but there are definitely a lot of steps involved. When you come to buy your “Free-From” processed foods, look at the number of steps, and the types of ingredients and see if there is a healthier, unprocessed alternative that you could use. This has the added advantage that you will always know exactly what you are eating!
I am not saying that all “Free-From” alternatives are unhealthy, it’s just that with a little homework in choosing processed foods with ingredients that are right for you, combined with a “back to basics” approach to cooking appreciating the goodness that whole natural unprocessed foods can give, there are ways to tackle your food allergies and food intolerances that, I am sure, will give you an even better chance of improved health.