The rise of the gluten free market and “mainstreaming” of gluten free should give all those with food sensitivities a boost of optimism. Recent Mintel research showed that “Sales from free from foods are forecast to grow 13% to reach £531 million in 2016”. Everyday free-from food predicaments should be alleviated: being a dinner guest and office “treat” sharing could become easier and more inclusive as people are more clued up on what gluten free means.

But there are also some drawbacks.

Challenge 1: the “health halo” and the “fad” label

There are some great role models showing people how they can eat free-from for optimum nutrition, based on their own experiences with food intolerances. However, taken out of context, the healthier-on-a-free-from-diet logic applied to non-sensitive people can be damaging. According to the Mintel research:

One in four Brits say they, or someone in their household, avoids certain ingredients as part of a general healthy lifestyle, compared to one in five who report avoidance due to an allergy or intolerance

We know that around 1 in 100 people are affected by coeliac disease (that we know of) and it seems reasonable to assume that a good number more suffer with an intolerance. But does that mean that one in four people are intolerant? It’s also possible that there could be other medical issues going unchecked through self-diagnosis as intolerant.

According to ONS, the current population of Britain is around 63 million – one in four of those people avoiding certain ingredients as part of a general healthy lifestyle is a LOT of people. This mass of people opting for free-from, based on the health halo, can lead to those with true sensitivities being lumped in as being “faddy” eaters or their medical need for safe food being taken less seriously.

Challenge 2: trusting too much to the free from label

There are two key points for those medically reliant on free-from products to keep in mind:

  1. The gluten free label doesn’t mean a food item is right for you, right now
  2. The gluten free label doesn’t mean the food is “good for you”, wholesome or nutritious

A gluten free label or accreditation on packaging may wrongly suggest a product is safe for all. Whilst most people with Coeliac Disease are thought to be perfectly safe eating gluten free oats, a proportion of sufferers also respond in the same way to oats (even gluten free ones) as they do to other grains, and a large proportion of gluten free products contain oats. Reviewing 292 lines of one major retailer, 16% contained gluten free oats.

The health halo effect combined with the less thorough label reading means that a lot of those eating free from foods are also eating a lot of junk foods packed with refined sugars. Whilst free from foods are great for convenience, they shouldn’t be solely relied on for nutrition and optimum health.

It’s important that those with sensitivities continue to be thorough about checking food labelling and ingredient lists on the food they are buying after ruling out the possibility of other explanations for their symptoms.