How do you define ‘free-from foods’?

‘Free-from’ foods are manufactured to eliminate the foods many people are either intolerant or allergic to, such as gluten or dairy. However, food companies across the world are using free-from foods to target those trying to avoid certain food groups, such as fat-free or sugar-free, leading the consumer to, often falsely, believe they are buying a healthier product.

So you believe free-from foods are not necessarily healthy, since they replace the allergens with unhealthy ingredients?

Just because a free-from food eliminates an allergen or food intolerance you might have, that doesn’t make that food a healthy choice. For example, many processed free-from gluten foods contain more sugar and fats to make up for the lack of gluten. However, for those who suffer from coeliac disease or gluten allergy, these foods are a life-saver.

Why do you think these foods have become so popular in the last few years?

Eliminating foods such as dairy and gluten has become very popular – people are feeling better after they eliminate these from their diets. What has added to the attraction is the fact that it is endorsed by celebrities. When stunning Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, advocates cutting out foods like dairy, gluten, soy and caffeine, the trend will surely find a fan following.

But what’s worrying is how marketers promote such foods so that the consumer believes it to be a healthy product, not realising it is actually higher in calories than the normal product they might buy. I also believe that more and more people are suffering from digestive health problems and this can be related to living more stressful lives and the overuse of medications such as antibiotics. Under those conditions our digestive system is burdened, leaving people bloated, malnourished and feeling generally worse after eating those foods that can be more challenging to digest, such as gluten.

So it’s not that they are necessarily allergic, coeliac or intolerant, but they need to boost overall digestive health to feel better.

Are health benefits of free-from foods real or is it merely a placebo effect?

If you are someone who has an allergy or intolerance to that food ingredient then you do need to avoid it and you will feel better, so in that regard, having free-from foods will alleviate symptoms. There are also many free-from foods that are healthier options – for example choosing buckwheat pancakes over a wheat pancake is better, or choosing coconut milk yogurt or kefir instead of standard cow’s milk yogurt is a good choice. Ideally you choose foods that are naturally free-from foods, rather than the processed products. This includes fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, wholegrains, eggs, meat, fish and poultry.

How do we make a more informed choice when in the free-from aisle?

Not all free-from foods are bad, of course, there are some great products out there, but you just have to become a label detective and make sure you know what you are putting into your body. So if you are buying something with a food label, go for a product that has very few ingredients and know what those ingredients are. If you cannot recognise any of the ingredients mentioned on the packaging, step away from it. Also avoid foods that have any form of sugar in the first three-four ingredients, as this means it is high in sugar.

Why has gluten become such a huge dietary villain? Can we choose organic wheat flour instead?

Gluten is certainly the most well-known food to be eliminated in the free-from category. If a person is coeliac, then any form of wheat will cause an autoimmune response, so they must avoid any form of gluten (wheat, rye, barley and some oats), in which case organic wheat is not an option.

When you go for non-organic wheat, you choose a type of wheat that has been genetically grown and is often known as Frankenwheat. This type of wheat, some argue, is more difficult for us to digest when compared to organic wheat. But there are also studies suggesting this is not the case. Still, I recommend you choose organic if you can to keep your body as clean as possible. Gluten is found in so many foods, from sausages, soups, salad dressing and stock cubes to even supplements and medications. Its ability to remain in so many foods may contribute to its culinary villain’s reputation as avoiding it becomes quite the challenge.

Does eating healthy mean eating no processed food at all?

Certainly. If you avoided processed foods you would be eating healthily and this is a great way to live.

Having said that, a rare treat here and there is absolutely fine, as long as you get back to eating healthy at the next meal.

A doctor in 1996 coined the term orthorexia nervosa to describe his patients’ unhealthy obsession with eating cleanly and purely. It literally translates as ‘fixation on righteous eating’.

He found that people might become obsessive to the point it totally consumes them and this can lead to isolation or feelings of guilt and self-loathing if they deviate from their rules of healthy eating.