So, you think you're intolerant?

Updated on 20 October 2011 | 0 Comments

The market in "free from" products is huge, and it's growing. But will this lead to a load of overpriced and unnecessary products?

May contain nuts

With constant warnings that peanut butter “may contain nuts”, and a carton of eggs contains, well, egg, it would be easy to believe that half the population suffered from a food allergy or intolerance. The reality is quite different. The NHS says that while surveys show that 20 -30% of adults believe they have a food allergy, in fact only between 1 and 2% of adults do. More suffer from intolerances but these reactions are so wide ranging and vary so greatly in seriousness that only a tiny proportion of the population is significantly affected. What, then, is behind such an in depth study of the “free from” food market?

The study

The three month investigation is being carried out by Surrey-based Leatherhead Food Research group and aims to identify whether the increased demand for “free from” food is driven by a real need or whether it’s just a fad. 3,000 people in six countries will be questioned about their perceived food intolerance. The group believes there is a growing body of consumers with “designer disorders”. For these people eating food that is free from gluten, wheat or dairy has little to do with allergies or intolerance but with unconnected reasons like weight loss. With a staggering 600 “suitable for” products launched last year alone and the market predicted to grow to £132m in the next four years, it’s clear that manufacturers have been presented with an opportunity they’re not going to miss.

Intolerant or allergic

There’s a big difference between an allergy and an intolerance. An allergy can be life threatening and will lead to an almost immediate specific reaction. It will also be triggered by the smallest particle of food. Food intolerance on the other hand will result in a much more generalised type of reaction, like bloating or stomach ache, that can occur long after eating. Intolerances might be uncomfortable – but they aren’t life threatening.

Discovering you’re intolerant has benefits

Of course, the benefits of identifying a genuine intolerance are real. You might simply feel better – check out this account of a discovery of lactose intolerance, or – admittedly less likely – you could become a world beater like Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic

Official advice

But it’s the claim by so many to intolerance that is so peculiar when in fact we are much more tolerant than we think we are. As the Food Standards Agency points out, many people convince themselves that they have an intolerance when they don’t. You might have a problem with your digestion and put it down to an intolerance to wheat but by cutting out certain foodstuffs from a diet without proper medical advice, you can end up doing yourself more harm than good.

Scam testing

Despite calls for caution from bodies like the Food Standards Agency the number of people claiming intolerance continues to grow: and there’s no shortage of weirdly named tests to help convince you of your inability to tolerate certain foods. The painful sounding Kymatika K-test was until recently available in high street chemists, until intrepid Julia Bradbury of BBC Watchdog fame took the test herself and rapidly debunked any claim it had to reliability. She tested twice in the same afternoon. Once she was told she only had to avoid onions. A couple of hours later she was told to cut out everything from bananas to lager from her diet.

Tolerance pays

Before you’re tempted to revamp your diet and pay over the odds for something that you may not need, ask yourself is it worth it? If you want to go down the intolerance route you better be prepared to pay for it: dairy free, wheat free and gluten free fish fingers at one major supermarket cost £2.29 for 300g. Birds Eye are just £4.55 a kilo. White sliced bread in the same shop with “free from” credentials is 50p for 100g – the normal stuff is just 7p for 100g! 

If in doubt, don’t cut it out

The study will publish findings in December. My guess is that, come next year the “free from” aisles in every supermarket and health store will be bulging with new products. It might be unsurprising that manufacturers want to explore “opportunities” in this lucrative market but before you start paying over the odds for run of the mill food items you might be better to think about the Food Standards Agency advice – if in doubt there’s no need to leave it out.

What do you think? Are free from products worth it? Do you suffer from an allergy or food intolerance? Would you like to see a wider range of food available to you?


Also worth your attention:

The best gluten free foods

Gluten free foccacia

Gluten free bread


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