FREE FROM FOOD

Su­per­mar­kets are giv­ing th­ese foods more space, di­eti­tians say it’s the way for­ward and food com­pa­nies be­lieve the fare adds more cred­i­bil­ity to their prod­uct range. Mri­nal Shekar finds out about…

Friday - - In The Uae -

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 Dubaibased 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 freefrom 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 gluten­free. ‘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

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 Gul­food or­gan­is­ers

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.

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