I do not watch the Dragon’s Den as I do not enjoy ritualised humiliation. I know that it is all about making entertaining telly, but there are other ways. And yes, I know – the Bake Off does ritualised humiliation as well, but it is so much gentler…..
However, I did watch this edition of the programme as the lovely Rule of Crumb from Northern Ireland were up there pitching for £60,000 to help them expand their gluten-free range. As it happened none of the dragons were up for investing (or if they were, they wanted 40% of the company in return for their sixty grand, which seemed a bit steep).
However, Dragon Nick Jenkins managed to stir coeliac wrath by suggesting that those on gluten-free diets (like himself) really did not need specialised foods as there were plenty of ‘naturally gluten-free’ foods available. He, for example, did very well on avocado and soft boiled eggs for breakfast……… Try suggesting that to your thirteen-year-old looking for his bowl of GF Coco pops!!
It was a fairly stupid and, in true Dragon’s Den style, provocative comment – and no doubt was intended to be so – but it did raise the issue of ‘naturally’ gluten (or any allergen)-free food versus ‘created’ freefrom food, an issue that comes our way quite frequently.
As anyone who has lived on a gluten-free/dairy-free/egg-free or any other ‘free’ diet for some time will know, there are many hundreds of foods which are ‘naturally’ free of your particular allergen and, with time and some effort, you can eat well without ever going near a ‘freefrom’ aisle or shop. Some members of the food industry have also clocked this fact.
Take the Ilumi range, for example – over 50 ready meals, sauces and soups, all gluten, nut, egg and dairy free and all made from ingredients which had never included and would never include gluten, nuts, dairy or eggs. Many other companies are also looking at their recipes and realising that it would only take a minor tweak to remove gluten, dairy, nuts, eggs and/or some of the less common allergens such as celery from the mix and, hey presto, they have a ‘freefrom’ dish.
And this is all good. It enormously increases the range of products that are available for those on ‘freefrom’ diets. It also makes manufacturers think about their ingredients and make a more concerted effort to move into this new freefrom market. Again all good for those who want or need to eat freefrom.
But…. There remain many, many foods, especially processed and convenience foods, in which the main ingredient is wheat flour, or milk, or butter, or eggs, or peanuts. And unfortunately, these make up a significant part of the standard 21st century British diet. (Way back in the days when we really did eat roast meat and two veg for dinner every night, this was far less of an issue.)
The vast majority of those who now need or choose to eat a ‘freefrom’ gluten-free, dairy-free etc diet did not originally do so from choice. Either they had serious health issues and were required by their health professionals to cut out those ingredients, or they decided for themselves that they felt much healthier without them. But that does not mean that they no longer enjoy – indeed often crave – the dishes and the foods that they used to eat: the nice fat sandwich, the light and crispy croissant, the big dollop of cream on the strawberries, the tasty hunk of mature cheddar.
Moreover, since in a busy, working and mainly urban society, most people only have limited time for cooking, they still depend on the food industry to supply them with covenient foods that they can eat on the go or pick up on the way home and just heat up for supper. But while many convenient and ‘on-the-go’ foods can perfectly well be made from naturally freefrom ingredients (see those Ilumi foods or the huge ranges of cereal and energy bars), breads, biscuits, breakfast cereals, pasta, pizza bases – the bedrock of many people’s diets – really cannot.
And feasibility aside, people, and especially children, do not like to always be the ‘weird’ one who has to eat something strange and different. So finding a bread, a croissant, a pizza that not only tastes like the one that they remember from before they went ‘freefrom’ but also allows them to blend in with everyone else, is really desirable. Dragon Nick may be perfectly happy to eschew bread and eat avocados and soft boiled eggs for breakfast every morning, but he ain’t everyone! For most people on gluten-free diets, being able to grab a bowl of cereal or a piece of toast for breakfast which they can eat without making themselves ill – or go out to a restaurant and get a white roll which may not be the tastiest, but which looks like everyone else’s and which they can eat safely (such as the Rule of Crumb’s roll that Dragon Nick was so rude about) – is a really big deal.
Over the years of judging the FreeFrom Food Awards, I have watched coeliacs and dairy allergics all but burst into tears when they have been offered a really good gluten-free donut, a dairy-free cheese sauce that tastes like cheese, a coconut ice cream which is really creamy – because it is the first time they have tasted something like that in years, and they never thought that they would again! And nor would they have done if ‘freefrom’ manufacturers had not put serious effort and investment into recreating those ‘classic’ foods from alternative, ‘naturally’ freefrom ingredients, but worked on to behave like wheat or dairy or eggs.
So yes, naturally ‘freefrom’ foods are great and everyone should be encouraged to eat them. But there is still most definitely a place for ‘freefrom’ manufacturers who can recreate foods that may be based on ‘naturally freefrom’ ingredients but which aim to, and often do, taste like those unreconstructed foods that are now banned from their diets!