Kirsty Ritchie: Consistently high quality and totally trustworthy ‘free-from’ foods the goal

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The UK food and drink free-from market is worth £585.6 million and sales are estimated to reach £673m by 2020. Free-from is used to describe food and drink specifically designed to exclude one or more ingredients that consumers can be allergic or intolerant to.

Gluten-free makes up more than half of the free-from market. Producers of gluten-free foods have come together to set up a new Gluten Free Industry Association, part of the Food and Drink Federation, to ensure consistent high standards and provide additional consumer confidence. These producers include Bells of Lazonby, BFree Foods, Delicious Alchemy, Dr Schar, Genius Foods, Mrs Crimbles, Nairn’s Oatcakes, Northumbrian Fine Foods and Warburtons.

I had a chat with Simon Wright, chair of the group, to find out more about the gluten-free market and why the association has been set up. Simon said it is often difficult for individual companies to have their say –the association helps to provide one collective voice for the gluten-free industry and one main point of contact for stakeholders.

Simon describes gluten as the glue that holds many products together including bread, pastries, cakes, biscuits, cereals and pasta. He said that gluten is a difficult ingredient to replace as more than one ingredient is often required to replicate that important function. The industry is increasingly using ingredients commonly found in the average family kitchen to make free-from products as natural as possible. Gluten-free manufacturers have been working hard over many years to ensure people that suffer from a gluten intolerance or allergy are able to enjoy the food they eat.

I spoke to Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, founder of Genius Gluten Free, to find out more about her journey to create the perfect gluten-free bread. Lucinda set up Genius when her son was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance and she couldn’t find good quality, gluten-free bread for him to eat. Lucinda is a professionally trained chef and from her kitchen at home set out to create the recipe for a fresh, soft and tasty gluten-free loaf. She says her children would often come home to find as many as 14 loaves waiting to be tested. It took two years but through trial and error she got it right. Lucinda found a gluten-free bakery in Scotland and it took another year to scale it into a commercial product. In 2009, Genius bread hit the supermarket shelves and has retained its leading UK gluten-free brand position ever since.

I asked Simon about the association’s priorities. Testing raw materials and finished products to ensure they don’t contain gluten is vital but Simon highlighted that this costs a lot of time and money and the results can be inconsistent. One key area of work for the association is designing protocols to make sure testing is done in the best possible way.

The group is also looking at problems companies have with ingredients coming into factories that are claimed to be gluten-free but occasionally contain traces of gluten. The problem is often with grains and seeds that have been contaminated with cereals such as wheat or barley early in the supply chain; at the farm gate or during transport. To prevent this happening the group will work with companies that supply ingredients to manufacturers of gluten-free products to ensure best practice is used throughout.

Nairn’s launched a gluten-free range in 2010. Naturally, oats do not contain gluten but can be contaminated by contact with other gluten containing grains. As well as working closely with their suppliers to avoid this, Nairn’s has invested in a new state of the art gluten-free bakery. I spoke to Paddy Cronin, the company’s sales director to find out more.

Paddy said Nairn’s has had a long-standing commitment to the free-from market and they launched gluten-free oatcakes due to demand from their consumers. This led to significant calls from their consumers to add further products to the range as well as continuing to offer healthy gluten-free products. Nairn’s subsequently launched a range of sweet gluten-free biscuits which Paddy says contain around 40 per cent less sugar than other sweet gluten-free biscuits on the market. These products – Biscuit Breaks – are now the best-selling gluten-free biscuits in the UK.

Improving the healthiness of gluten-free products is an important area of work for all gluten-free manufacturers across the UK. The industry is working to ensure products not only taste good but are nutritionally on par with their standard equivalent.

Our food producers are working together to ensure consumers can continue to enjoy and trust the high-quality gluten-free products that are on the market across the UK.

Kirsty Ritchie, communications executive, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Scotland