It has been a fascinating week in the fast-evolving world of free-from foods. As a normal person with brand expertise and experience of working in the free-from arena (that’s how I was classified by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson on the judging panel at the Free From Food Awards), judging hundreds of very well-populated food and drink categories was quite an eye-opener.
Three aspects stood out for me as marking significant and positive change. Firstly, the number of foods that had developed a truly acceptable taste profile to suit my ‘normal’ palate secondly, the stronger nutritional profile, which basically meant the foods contained less of the crap once a prerequisite in free from and thirdly the premiumisation of ingredients - some of the blind-tasted foods were visually mouthwatering, had great textures and also boasted exciting combinations of ingredients in convenient formats.
In the store cupboard ingredients category, after seeing and tasting some of the sauce staples and cooks’ ingredients I was impressed - I had never heard of jaggery as a natural and more nutritional sugar alternative used in Indian cuisine, for example, or even psyllium husk as an alternative to xanthan gum for thickening. The number of great-quality home baking dry mixes to make cakes and breads was also impressive. I would eat some of them over my regular bread choices, and they were super easy to make too.
“But it still needs to move away from the ‘special needs’ packaging”
On the other hand, some of the convenience aspects of free-from packaging were sorely lacking. One of the most sought-after store cupboard staples of a gluten-free white sauce mix tasted great, yet it came in the most peculiar shrink-wrapped plastic sausage packaging, stuck on to card.
There’s still much to be done to move away from a feel of ‘special needs’ packaging to gain more general foodie appeal. An awful lot of the packaging we saw post blind-tasting was a car crash of messages, colours and clutter. Strangely, the prettier, edgier modern food-designed goods often lacked the best foodie taste profiles, while the monstrous American-esque packaging often contained really tasty stuff. Interesting.
The other funny thing was the lack of visibility of most of the brands that had entered the awards. I’d never seen most of them - and neither had the majority of the judges.
These brands and products are some of the best on offer, so someone needs to get hold of them and get them out there. Free from is growing in appeal for more than just intolerants there are some great products and brands with huge, untapped potential for the general health-seekers and worried well among us too.
Claire Nuttall is founding partner of Thrive