I am listening to the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme The Grain Divide while I write this. It is trailing a new film of the same title. Wheat, which includes the protein gluten, is a base ingredient in the diet of most of us, and is the most widely grown crop on earth. Yet gluten-free is a mantra for growing numbers of people. Why is this happening? The Food Programme provides plenty to think about.
The debate, however, is a long way from my recent experience as a judge for the Free From Awards. I was on duty for just one day out of ten, assessing products on the market for people with either allergies or intolerances to gluten, lactose, nuts and many other things in modern food. Whether allergies would arise in such great numbers if we all cooked a lot more from scratch is not the discussion that we are having here. But it is a point in a world where so many people are overwhelmed by information on the packaged products that make up a great percentage of their ‘convenience’ diet.
My co-judges were nutritionists, bloggers, writers and marketeers. Many of them had allergies themselves, giving an insight into the need and desire for the products that we were assessing. Our task was to look at breakfast products, from cereals, milks and yogurts to baked goods, and then confectionary as a sweetener after lunch.
Many of you will know that I make our own granola and yogurt, and The Chief Taster is also Chief Baker in our house, so I was comparing these goods to what I make myself and considering them for taste, texture and pleasure. Some of my colleagues were looking for things that would enliven an otherwise restricted diet, and for treats. Our approach to, say, a pain au chocolate was therefore very different. Undoubtably to make such a product as gluten and dairy free is a task of exceptional skill, bringing Sunday morning treats within the grasp of most people.
It is three years since I last judged these Awards and the foods are generally much improved in flavour and texture. There are a few products making claims about being Free From allergens that should never occur in them in the first place, and we all need sound food knowledge to ensure that we don’t pay more for Free From foods simply because of the marketing. People who have allergies and intolerances need to be savvy shoppers and most of them are. Roll on the day when they are all prime cooks as well!