Ravi Raghavan was 28 when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Along with all things sweet, his nutritionist at the time also advised him to give up rice.

Have wheat instead, as it has more fibre, and will help you keep your sugar levels stable, she added.

For Ravi, it was difficult to make the switch initially – rice had always been his staple food – but he did it for his health’s sake. Now 51, Ravi had been struggling with indigestion and high sugar levels in spite of strict diet control and medication until recently. ‘Last year, in fact, my endocrinologist advised that I start taking insulin injections as a way to control my diabetes, but nothing was working,’ says Ravi, who is a senior executive in a Dubai-based company. A friend suggested that he give up wheat and dairy and adopt rice once again. ‘I was sceptical initially as I was always told rice is just a carb and therefore can play havoc with your sugar levels. So I ‘consulted’ Google and was shocked to know that gluten, the protein found in wheat, is actually the main suspect for my high sugar levels,’ he reveals. It’s been three months since Ravi has had any dairy or wheat product and the difference, he says, is nothing less than a miracle. ‘My metabolism is much better, I sleep well and most importantly, my endocrinologist is shocked to see the difference it has made to my sugar levels.’ It’s the way forward for me, he adds.

Is it merely a placebo effect caused by self-diagnosis or is there actually any substance to the rhetoric that ‘free-from foods’, especially gluten and dairy-free foods, have significant health benefits – even for those who are not allergic to them? Talking about its origin, trade pundits like New York-based Harry Balzer, vice president at the market research company NPD Group once said, ‘It is a part of the American concern with digestive health, which is also responsible for the [probiotic] yogurt boom.’

Defining free-from foods

According to Mintel, a global market intelligence company, ‘free-from food refers to foods that are manufactured and targeted specifically at consumers who suffer from food intolerances and/or food allergies or who are following avoidance diets. Foods that have been specially manufactured (eg pasta, bread) to cater for a gluten-free diet, for instance, are included within this definition.’ The keyword here being manufactured, which means food that has been processed. The phenomenon is mostly driven by gluten-free foods (from breakfast cereals and breads to pastas and frozen foods) but also includes foods that do not have dairy, nuts, egg, shellfish or soy.

The same company, in its February 2016 report, pointed out that in the UK, the market leader in the category, sales of free-from foods were forecast to grow 13 per cent to reach £531 million by the end of 2016 (around Dh2.4 billion), up from an estimated £470 million in 2015. But what is more important to note, according to the same research, is that a whopping 48 per cent of British people are now buying free-from foods. This food category is no longer relegated to a couple of aisles in one corner of a supermarket but is now becoming mainstream. Does this imply the number of Britons with food allergies has gone up, too? More on that later.

In the UAE too, the phenomenon has seen significant traction. ‘Consumers’ rising health awareness remained the 
key driver for health and wellness products in 2016,’ said the organisers of Gulfood, the world’s largest annual food and beverage show, which took place in Dubai earlier this month. From fat-free breakfast cereals to gluten-free baked goods and non-dairy milks, supermarkets across the country are stocking a large variety of products that are free-from not just these well-known allergens but other dietary villains, such as fat, sugar and salt.

‘I foresee more mainstream producers having free-from options,’ predicts Nils Al Accad, CEO of Organic Food & Café, which has been selling organic and free-from foods in Dubai since 2004.

It’s not only the specialist shops. At Marks & Spencer, assistant food merchandiser Archie Caragay sees the 
local free-from market as ‘brimming with potential, due to a consumer base that is increasingly interested in health 
and wellness.

‘We have seen a significant growth in terms of sales from 2015 to 2016, and it continues to grow for this year as well.’ When the Organic Foods and Café started, Nils says, it had about 80 products in the free-from category, most of them gluten-free. ‘Now 20 per cent of our products belong to the free-from space.’

If you thought the trend is limited to only those who are in the market for processed foods only, then you are wrong. More and more restaurants – fast food joints included – across the UAE are adding free-from preparations in their menu to attract this clientele. From gluten-free pizzas and dairy-free ice creams to protein pancakes that are gluten- and dairy-free, the country’s culinary landscape is packed with eating joints that offer so-called healthy choices.

This steady growth in the free-from food market signifies that more people are becoming mindful of what they and their family is eating. But are they eating right?

The health factor

This is a dietary minefield. With a large percentage of the population, irrespective of whether they suffer from any food allergy, opting for so-called healthy, free-from foods are now steadily driving business for most food companies across the world, the UAE included. In the UK for instance, according to Mintel’s report, while 48 per cent of the population consumes free-from foods, only 13 per cent suffers from food allergies – proving that it is a lifestyle choice, or what they believe is a healthy choice. The reason for this choice? ‘It makes them feel better and hopefully will help in losing weight’, the reports quotes.

Not necessarily. Free-from food does not mean guilt-free food. While the supermarkets place these products in the section marked ‘healthy’, thus fuelling an assumption that free-from foods are good for us, nutritionists point out that there is a need to look at the fine print.

Free-from foods are not necessarily free from fat, salt, sugar or preservatives, the other big dietary villains. The gluten-free bread that you just picked up may not be a healthier option than the regular loaf – it could have a higher amount of sugar, as quite often manufacturers replace gluten with sugar. They qualify to stay in the free-from category, and consumers feel that their ‘healthy’ choice is tasty, too.

‘Quite often, gluten-free bread has a much higher glycaemic index, so it raises the blood sugar level, can lead to weight gain and increase the risk of chronic disease such as diabetes,’ says Victoria Tipper, nutrition coach at Dubai Herbal treatment Centre. ‘The gluten-free breads are also lower in fibre and nutrients, such as the B vitamins.’

What’s worse is when manufacturers substitute natural fat, salt or sugar with synthetic ones. Dr Nael Al Koudsi, managing director at New Country Healthcare, a UAE-based company that distributes international food brands, says, ‘artificial sweeteners, just like refined fat, can play havoc with our digestive as well as overall health so it’s important that we stick to substitutes that are natural or plant based.’

Nils from Organic Foods agrees. The outlet, he says does not store any products that have artificial sweeteners.

Another substitution that is a cause for concern is ‘fortified food’ – processed foods that have been modified in such a way that the ‘villainous’ ingredients are replaced with heroes – vitamins or minerals – thus claiming to be doubly beneficial. Victoria isn’t convinced. ‘Unfortunately with many fortified foods, the synthetic vitamin or mineral added is not processed by the body in the same way that nutrient would be if it came from a wholefood source.’

So what’s the solution? Should we all start growing our own food just so that we know exactly what we are putting on our plate?

The way forward

While the jury’s out on the pros and cons of eating wheat, nutritionists agree on one thing: We need to choose whole, natural foods over processed foods. So, instead of shopping in the aisles where supermarkets stock foods that come in cans, tins and cartons, irrespective of how healthy they claim to be, Victoria points out, ‘we should choose whole fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, wholegrains, eggs, meat, fish and poultry.’

That might explains Ravi’s claim of feeling better after giving up wheat products. Since wheat is the base for many processed foods available in the market, especially baked goods, by eliminating it from his diet, Ravi also cut out harmful sugar and fat as well. And by replacing it with a natural wholefood, not processed food, Ravi improved his metabolism.

As Nils says, ‘what with stress causing damage to our digestive system, we need to eat food that is easier to digest and thus improves our well-being.’

When it comes to food, going back to basics is the way forward.