There are many wonderful things about the Free From Food Awards. The chance to find out about exciting new free from products, often from small producers. The opportunity it gives to those small producers to reach a wider audience of potential buyers. The way it benchmarks progress in the free from world from year to year, with an ever-expanding list of entries, variety and improving ingredient profiles; and for me, personally, as an honoured judge, the chance to meet and converse with some of the most knowledgeable people in the UK free from industry.
It’s that conversation which has been the highlight of my involvement in judging and the awards for the past two years. I reflected on the celebration of this week’s awards, to friends met only through the free from world, that whereas a similar event in a professional capacity would fill me with shy terror, here I didn’t, happily approaching people met only online, meeting new people and expanding my network of experts, potential collaborators and friends in a field where I feel confident enough to express an opinion, but hopefully sensible enough to consider the opinions of others too.The challenge and exchange that happens among judges and entrants, all equally passionate about their own expert area in the free from world, is enlightening. I constantly had my views and beliefs challenged in a refreshing way:
Perhaps by ‘blind’ tasting a product and finding it delicious before it’s revealed as a product you’d never give a second glance in the supermarket (like the winner of the Veggie Ready Meals category: Georgia’s Choice)
Maybe from debating the nutritional merits (or lack of) of a product before being reminded by a parent of an allergic child ‘to hell with that, my kid would get to feel normal for a few moments enjoying this’ (as with the highly commended sugar and nut-free chocolate icecream alternative from Sweet Rebellion).
Other judges told stories of nutritionists extolling the virtues of ‘superfood’ products before being reality-checked by chefs noting the pointlessness of something that tastes so bad you’d never eat enough to get the benefits; and of debates between those championing small and artisan producers not 100% au fait with allergy legislation (in fact some sadly yet needfully disqualified for this despite excellent products) and the high street behemoths with commercial backers and a mass-market to consider.
Dear Reader, I even ate something with spirulina in. You’d be proud. (I’m not going to admit to liking it).All this serves to illustrate the big, messy, growing, moving mass that is the free from industry. People and companies come to it with different reasons and motivations, and make a contribution. Alex (who runs the social media for FFFA) noted that this year there was more engagement than ever from non-obvious free from tweeters and mainstream brands in the awards.
Naturally then, there was of course some mild controversy. Those of us with a medical need for free from foods tend to feel very proprietary about the domain, and the problems that come with a growing ‘lifestyle’ free from market. As such smaller producers with experience of allergy are fiercely championed by the allergy community as “one of their own”; and continued lack of clarity on what can be rightly called ‘free from’ (with the exception of legally-defined ‘gluten free’) may mean some are not pleased with the overall winners (such as the utterly divine dairy free products from Coconut Collaborative which carry a precautionary milk warning). The issue of price and marketability of course always rears its head – with patron Anthony WT calling for normality on behalf of free from consumers in his brief speech (to cheers), yet one winning product from a small producer clocking in at an eyewatering £18 a loaf (presumably due to it’s lack of compromise on high quality ingredients).Despite this, Michelle and the team continue to do a sterling job of making sure the awards is open to all (as well as reminding us that the awards can bring economies of scale and thus reduced prices for small producers), whilst not losing sight of what is important in the eyes of the law and the consumer – meticulous attention to allergen control for those who need it, broadening choice and improving quality for the free from consumer, and giving opportunities to new businesses. The awards (and industry) are all the richer for it.
Many thanks to the team for involving me again this year, excited to hear about the next awards now in their 10th year!
Full details of the award winners are here.
You can see some of my personal product highlights from judging here.
I have written in the past on the challenges with price in the free from industry here.