Recently I’ve become increasingly aware of food allergies, as a number of people I work with, including Kate have allergies such as gluten intolerance. Kate recently started a gluten free (GF) blog called Postcards from a gluten free life. I’ve not really thought about allergies in the past, but they affect a huge amount of people and present a real challenge to how people source, cook and eat food.
This growing interest conveniently coincided with an invite I recieved to a Sainsbury’s event about GF and food allergies. The company relaunched its Free From range recently, so invited a number of food bloggers to an evening about cooking for food allergy sufferers to raise awareness. Gluten free and other food and related bloggers including Lucy, Molly, Pippa and Anne cooked a number of dishes and I put together a thai beef salad. There are some pictures of the fun event here.
It helped shine a light on some of the basic issues that food allergy sufferers face. Sainsbury’s reckons they end up spending 40% longer in store because so much time is spent checking labels. A nice anecdote I heard was that some people call Sainsbury’s new Free From aisles (now appearing in their bigger stores) the library aisle, because everyone is reading packets! But even eating out, food allergy sufferers are made to experience humiliation and inconvenience. Because most restaurants only cater for vegetarians explicitly on their menus, people with other dietary needs have to check ingredients or order off-menu. This – and I’ve experienced it first hand plenty of times – can be at best, inconvenient and mildly humiliating or at worst, result in illness, allergic reactions and gross personal irritation. Kitchens ill prepared to cater specifically for specialised requests overlook key instructions like “no nuts” and it could easily result in death, since anaphylactic shock is a very real threat to (not only) sufferers of peanut allergies.
Information and communication seems to be one of the major themes faced by ‘coeliacs’ (people who suffer from gluten intolerance) and other allergy sufferers. A friend of mine who recently had an operation resulting in considerable dietary challenges asked her doctor – post-operation – ‘so what can I eat’. The answer was short and shrift and she’s not had a great deal of help from her doctors, except as to what she can’t eat. Fortunately Sainsbury’s have kindly offered to help her explore a few culinary options. There are also some great gluten free and other allergy blogs around.
The effort Sainsbury’s is putting into Free From appears to be considerable. Taste and quality seem to be key issues faced by buyers and the company has gone to the effort of making a real education push and even realigned the supply chain for some products so they can produce fresher gluten-free bread products. Meanwhile, they have a phone line that will help consumers understand what they can eat and there’s a growing webpage with extra information. Interestingly, many of the suppliers in the market are very small niche producers; some only produce one or two products. This makes the supply chain issues even more complicated, but apparently the area is growing fast.
For Lent, I decided to try and set myself a challenge by giving up bread and despite a few lapses, it’s proved to be an interesting one. Some people, myself included, rely on bread a great deal and eat it many times a day. Great though it is, it’s proved eye-opening to try and cut it out completely and frankly, it does show me to an extent what people face. With allergies growing among the population, we can probably expect to see a lot more supermarkets market such ranges, but I think the restaurant community has a very long way to go.