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The whole free-from arena is hotting up more than ever, with record numbers of entries into the 2016 Good Choice! Quality Food Awards free-from category. So much so that a whole set of judges had to spend one whole day judging just those entries alone.

The mix of judges included free-from bloggers, nutritionists and founders of free-from food businesses. It was a great mix and the process provided some interesting insights when compared with the previous year.

One of my major observations was the rise in the number of ‘completely allergen-free’ entries. This opened up much debate around whether it was a fantastic thing to be completely allergen-free (which is incredible for an ‘allergic to everything’ niche few) or whether being free of everything might just impinge on taste and degrade quality. Too much taken out was felt by most judges to likely result in taste inferiority which, ironically, has been the largest issue of all in the past for major allergen sufferers. Do people want, need or expect 100% free-from?

In light of the whole trend in free-from moving towards product choices that are convenient and ‘free for all’ to enjoy, it was great to see so many entries had managed to create really tasty free-from recipes for favourite everyday foods.

We could not discern at all that many of the entries were free-from foods, yet they were all at least free of both gluten and dairy. These included burger buns, macaroni cheese, garlic breads, sausage rolls, hot dogs and birthday cakes. This is a great result for mums with children with intolerances as there are so many kiddie favourites in there. This will make a real difference to kids feeling normal among their friends who don’t have intolerances. And it’s been such a tricky area to crack in the past.

The chilled category was a star performer. With record entries and such high-quality products, the shortlist was in fact a longlist. This category took record time to judge as it was important to ensure the right winner was selected. That said, it was hard judging some entries as free-from when they never really had a need to be - they just happened to be naturally free-from in their original recipe. They were valid as entries, but it somehow felt unfair on solutions in categories that have always been hard to find free-from choices within.

It also raised the question whether in the future, even more brands will start putting gluten or dairy-free on front of packs just to get on the trendy free-from bandwagon. Is it becoming more of a status symbol of healthier living rather than the niche it was considered to be five years ago? Let’s see what 2017 brings…

Claire Nuttall is founder of The Brand Incubator