Tom Forshaw examines the motivations behind the creation of ‘free-from’  // Credit: International Rice Research Institute
Tom Forshaw examines the motivations behind the creation of ‘free-from’ // Credit: International Rice Research Institute

Recently there seems to have been a revolution in the food market.  The availability of free-from foods has been growing and growing in both supermarkets and restaurants, and while it’s great that the consumer is being given choice – what does it actually mean?

I think we can slice this discussion into two, because we have two distinct consumers.  There are those who seek allergen-free food because they have a specific allergy and then there are those who do not have a formal diagnosis but do wish to cultivate their health one way or another.

We all know someone with food allergies, perhaps to nuts or gluten food stuffs and, to them, the consequences of eating the wrong food can be intense.  This group however will often have a diagnosis and if you feel that you have some kind of food allergy then the only advice is to see your GP.  But if you don’t have any specific complaints then why would you want to avoid certain foods?

Could you benefit from a gluten-free diet?  Low GI?  Cutting out the fat and sugar?  And who would actually put MSG in their food?  Have you stopped to consider why?  It sounds like a silly question but if you haven’t been advised to avoid certain foods by a doctor or dietician then there probably isn’t any need to.  In fact, it may actually be harmful to your health.

The ‘include it/exclude’ it debate in food is bitter and the purpose of this opinion piece is not to tell you what you should eat but rather to question why we have chosen these foods.  There are a lot of anecdotes out there and an equal number of enthusiast websites declaring  ‘facts’ without merit – they tend to use bizarre circular referencing techniques to point to each other’s website without anyone actually possessing evidence.

We’re all concerned about our health and advertisers put in a lot of effort to plant the idea that your health may benefit from a certain type of food, but their facts feel sugar coated.  So, if it is possible that we the consumers are not benefiting from free-from foods, then who is harvesting the yields?

Tom Forshaw
Tom Forshaw

If you know that restaurant X serves only gluten-free (as clearly advertised) then why would you eat at unhealthy restaurant Y?  And if Tesco proudly profess that they don’t sell GM food then why would you shop anywhere else?  Products are sold as being ‘chemical-free’ and natural, something which again speaks about worth of a product.  Selling something as MSG-free seems to have become synonymous with ‘higher quality’ and with that retailers can sell MSG-free at a premium.

But if it does not actually contain anything premium then what are you paying for?  Supermarkets pay a lot of money to appear altruistic – caring sells.  But is it your health which is their concern, or is it unsavoury profit?


By Tom Forshaw