It’s the discussions around the judges table that are the most fascinating part of judging the Free From Food Awards each year. In Foods Matter HQ there is a little microcosm of the free from world, with the same range of needs and opinions you see in the ‘real world’. Battles are fought between biscuits based on every criteria – nutritional value, innovation, market need, and just plain ‘yumminess’. Allergy parents sit between nutritionists with letters to their names, branding experts, and consumers like me. It can make for interesting debate!
This year, like every other, preconceptions were challenged by the blind tasting – stalwart products that look like nothing much on the shelf can win accolades, as can small start-ups and giant national brands.
This year I had the pleasure of attending the new ‘No Top 14 Allergens’ category panel. Diverse by any standard – egg replacers were pitted against curry sauces, naturally free from snacks and giant celebration cakes; yet some common themes emerged.
The industry is a whole seems more focussed than before on simplifying ingredients lists, improving nutritional quality, and incorporating interesting naturally free from ingredients. For example, a reworking of an old vegan favourite – chickpea flour – with seasonings made a surprisingly good ‘omelette’. A product by Orgran I wouldn’t have usually looked twice at! Lentils, beans and pulses were the heroes of the day, boosting protein and fibre content of many a crisp and savoury snack, as well as some delectable falafel-style bites from Gosh!
Such vegan-friendly products also nodded to the lifestyle ‘free from’ market, which continues to drive choice and innovation, and be a double-edged sword for those with a medical need. I nibbled my fair share of ‘activated’ nuts and ‘raw’ bagels in the Savoury Snack category – tasty, if expensive products which offered new options for allergic individuals, amongst some concerns over allergen control and labelling (a confusing, thorny topic, even for experts in the industry). Buttery Pili nuts were a particularly delicious highlight being new to the UK market, but mark uncharted territory for those with nut allergies.
As well as small artisan producers, the big mainstream brands are also capitalising on the free from surge more than ever before. There was a raft of new gluten free products from Nairns, including some rather delicious rosemary flatbread crackers; And some very unusual purple rice crackers from Gallo, which would make wonderful quirky additions to a cheese board.
Multiple allergen free and low FODMAP products are starting to emerge. In fact there were some 30+ entries to the ‘No Top 14’ category. To me this displays a real knowledge of the free from customer base, who often manage multiple dietary restrictions under one roof. Miniature ravioli from Ugo were delicate and well executed without any dairy or egg; and there were some excellent cakes from start-up My Gammies – so new their website isn’t up and running. I happily nibbled on an extra bite of their chocolate cupcake as I headed for the door to resume parenting duties.
These were my personal highlights – the full shortlist of products can be found here – some marvellous things to seek out and try so do take a look!