Thursday, 29 September 2016

Free From Surveys: How accurate are they?

Do we get meaningful information from the results of surveys we read about in the news?

This week a couple of press releases on what we do not eat have crossed my path.

In the first, according to data from Nielsen, over four in ten Britons are now on restricted diets, such as 'sugar conscious', low fat, low sodium, low carb, veggie, wheat/gluten-free, dairy free or halal.

The Daily Mail reported this as 'food paranoia' 'gripping the nation' while the Independent instead plumped for 'nearly half of Britons' ... 'clean eating'.

The researchers claim 49% try to avoid antibiotics / hormones, 45% additives, 42% sugar, 41% GM foods, 40% products in packaging made using BPA (which some campaign groups speculate is linked to cancer), 39% MSG, 37% saturated / transfats, 35% sodium and ... it goes on.

One in five households has a food-sensitive member, they say, and the most common ingredients avoided for this reason are grains (43%), eggs (38%), lactose/dairy (36%) and gluten (30%).

I asked and received fuller results and data, and on closer analysis some questionable figures present themselves.

* Of those avoiding organic foods, 13% do so because " ... someone in my household has a medical condition that prohibits consumption ... "

* 11% of responders "try to include" in their diet food products contained in a package made with BPA.

* 18% of avoiders of superfoods (chia, goji, acai) do so because of a medical condition, and 35% because they believe them harmful.

I know of no condition requiring the avoidance of so-called superfoods or organic foods, and I have to question whether many people even know what BPA is, let alone make a deliberate effort to expose themselves to it.

"The Rise of the 'Varitarian'" 
That was the title of another release I received, covering research by Censuswide and commissioned by Zizzi restaurant chain - to coincide with their new autumn menu that includes a new vegan lentil ragu, and more vegan gelati and wines. The release claimed that the average diner has tried at least three different diets this year.

It's not clear to me what an 'average diner' is. Again, I was offered the detailed results of the survey of 2,000 respondents. It seems the average number of diets tried by diners in the last year was in fact 0.88. 69% tried none; 24% tried one, two or three; 7% tried four or more.

Other figures in the press release do not to my mind reconcile with the spreadsheet of data I've seen, so I won't quote them, as I suspect they were misinterpreted. However, one interesting statistic concerned the number of dietary preferences on a night out among friends: around 40% of respondents said at least one needs to be accommodated within their immediate social circle - a figure food service providers need to heed if they wish to capture this potentially large market.

But again there are inconsistencies. Variations of virtually the same question to the same pool of people gave widely differing results: "Which diets do you normally have to accommodate in your friendship group?" (36% said none) and "On an average Saturday night meal out with a group of friends, how many dietary preferences do you have to accommodate?" (50% said none).

Can surveys and responders be trusted?
Not fully, no, I don't think.

Results claiming to represent the whole country need to include a representative sample of people from the whole country - with each person having an equal chance of being selected for survey.

Email or internet surveyors have a limited pool of people - not merely those with online access, but also those whose email addresses they have and/or who have registered or agreed to take part in surveys.

Usually, even those who have agreed in principle to take part then self-select further and volunteer to take part in a particular survey - perhaps responding to a request or advertisement or influenced by a friend to do so. This results in a further skewering of results, of course. People with an interest in food and special diets, in some form, are more likely to complete a survey about food and special diets, particularly if they are incentivised with the offer of vouchers, for example, in return for their time.

Which brings in another problem issue - rewards. Some of those completing any survey offering a reward may be completing it primarily to receive that reward - and therefore I think it's fair to question the accuracy of the responses they might give. After all, survey completion is the aim - not correct and honest survey completion. It's hard not to speculate that this may lead to such peculiarities in results described above - although I know that some market research companies do have protocols in place to weed out 'career responders'.

Nevertheless there are, in my view, simply too many biases involved in online surveys.

Does it matter?
Yes - not least because newspapers and their journalists are not digging deeper to look at the real story, which may be more interesting than the one presented.

But it's a symptom of a bigger problem in media these days, that to get your name in the papers only requires that you engineer some noise and provide easy copy. For instance, you can do this by fabricating an enormous pisstake - as did the White Moose Cafe recently, whatever the fallout might be.

Or you can hire PRs to push gushing case studies to sometimes passive journalists who know how effortlessly these can be turned into eye-catching stories or sold to the papers. This sort of thing regularly happens with York Test and their IgG testing services for food intolerance.

Or you can pull together a survey, which doesn't cost that much, I imagine, and put out a press release based on it with some quotable figures and stats. Doesn't really matter how accurately representative the numbers are - because it gives the media something to fill their pages with regardless, and any waffle about gluten, or sugar, or clean eating, or vegans, or additives, or diets, will probably generate some coverage, especially online, where it serves as superior clickbait in this age of public obsession with diet.

To my mind what all this stuff tells us is that there are a lot of people with vested interests in getting - and keeping - free from in the news, irrespective of the value of the information provided. But how much of that helps those who actually need to live free from lives, I wonder?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Quinoa Crack

Here's something different in the free from market - Quinoa Crack

It's a newly launched 100% quinoa cereal in a box with nothing else added - and sold direct to the consumer by the quinoa grower / producer, who is based in France, and works with a local farmer there. The cereal is sold in parcels of 8 boxes, so the idea is that potentially interested consumers 'buddy up' with friends to buy in bulk and share the products between them. Alternatively, shoppers can try to persuade their local small traders to stock the cereal. 

Why this approach? Because Jason, the man behind QC, is looking to avoid the 'impersonal food distribution and retail chains' that dominate. "The goal is actually to e-commerce this cereal as much as possible and have a bunch of non-professional 'dealers' organising group purchases," as he put it to me. It's an original idea - and it has well-known nutritionist Amanda Hamilton in support as ambassador - but will it take off? 

The product is gluten-free, of course, which means it should potentially be catching the eye of not only coeliacs but those with IBS and looking to reduce FODMAPs, and those avoiding gluten for other reasons. I hesitate to use the expression clean eating, which I don't much like, but I guess it will appeal to those for whom that way of life has become the norm.

But all this will only happen if word spreads ... 

Here's the thing. I regularly see tweets and blogs gushing over the launch of the latest mass-marketed junk treat - witness the inexplicable fuss being made over Gregg's first gluten-free launches, which are, I kid you not, a gluten free brownie and a toffee popcorn crispie - so I hope enough social media commentators and free-from consumers make at least a little noise about Quinoa Crack to give it a fighting chance of succeeding. It's different, and if you want healthier and better free from options, supporting and spreading the news about an initiative which is trying to do something fresh is one way to help ...

For more information, see the Quinoa Crack website

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

FreeFrom finds at Speciality & Fine Food Fair 2016

It had been some years since I attended this annual foodie extravaganza, not having found much in the way of free from back in 2013 - but times change, the show has expanded, and both vegan and gluten free food certainly made its presence felt this year. Here's a selected round up of some of the brands and products I came across.

I'll start with what might excite a fair few - Miiro Ice Cream. It's hard to avoid describing it as a free from 'Magnum' - so I shan't try - but it is one that is gluten-free and vegan. The ice cream is coconut-based, there's pea protein and natural sweeteners such as dates, and the chocolate coating is made from raw chocolate - easily the best bit. Subtle coconut taste to the ice cream itself. Sadly, there's a milk trace warning. Just launched, the makers hope it'll be in Planet Organic and Wholefoods Market by November.

Pizza dough calzones from Upwards Foods look like a promising on-the-go option for coeliacs - all that is required is a several minute blast in a microwave, from frozen. They come in chicken, greens & grains, and margherita flavours - with a sweet chocolate option too.

Despite the curious name and the somewhat dreary packaging, the fresh pasta from Evexia Thrive (no website yet) looks good and is expected to be in Sainsbury's by the end of September. Varieties are penne and chickpea fusili, and spinach and ricotta / tomato and mozzarella tortelloni.

More savoury options are always good in the brownie-saturated world of free from, and The Free From People's Buttercup Meadow range of seasoning mixes are GF, DF and egg free. Mix with meat, fish, vegetables to make, well, burgers, bangers and balls! They come in hot and spicy, lemon parsley and thyme, rosemary and garlic, sage and onion, spicy Moroccan and sausage mix. Currently available direct from the website, or Wholefoods in Scotland, and some farm shops.

Irish brand Wicked Wholefoods offer multiple-free granola baked with raw organic virgin coconut oil and interesting spices such as cardamom. Very tasty ...

I liked The Nut Kitchen's range of nut pastes and creams. Some do contain milk and egg, but notable among the eight-strong range is the almond milk paste, from which you can make your own unsweetened milk, and which is delicious. It's a convenient way to whip up some almond milk as and when you need it, and there's no 'may contain milk' warning on the product either. All are gluten free as well.

I did not expect Fravocado ice cream to taste of avocado, but it's not disguised by the coconut it also contains at all - and is all the better and more distinctive for it, in my view. Sweetened with agave nectar, it comes in three flavours - raspberry and basil, raw cacao, and original. It's only currently got limited distribution in Devon, but - given it is free from all 14 allergens with no 'may contain' warnings - it really does deserve to be picked up for national distribution.

Irish brand Boutique Bake offer a trio of gluten and refined sugar free mixes - including cacao protein bites mix and almond and cacao brownie mix. But it's the oat and seed energy bars mix which caught my eye and is the most original - just added bananas and coconut oil needed to make 16 gluten and dairy free vegan bars.

The British Quinoa Company make some new ready to eat quinoa meal pouches (including black olive and pesto, apricot and harissa), but possibly their signature product is their smoked dry quinoa which has an extraordinary smoked fragrance - and which they recommend for Moroccan or Mexican inspired cooking. They also offer some quinoa and oat cereals - granola and muesli - which are made with GF oats.

There was a lot of chocolate, and quite a bit of it raw, so again I'll just mention two brands - both from Sweden. First, Rawchocolad-Fabriken. Notable because they are nut-free - as well as vegan and free from other allergens. I really liked their mint flavoured chocolate. Second, Malmo Chokladfabrik - which is again free from all allergens (except milk in their milk varieties) and who do a spectacular liquorice flavoured chocolate.

Gato and Co do gluten and dairy free desserts - the most interesting of which is their chocolate fondant with aubergine and spirulina.

Minioti ice cream are milk-based but deserve a mention because it's made in a nut free environment - and is gluten free with no added sugar.

I'm not one to bang on about crisps and the fuss some people make about them remains a bit of a mystery to me, so I'll restrict myself to just one collection - but easily the best and most flavoursome of the brands I did get around to tasting. Leighton Brown offer beetroot horseradish and dill crisps - which were deliciously savoury - as well as sweet potato cheese and jalapeño, and parsnip and manuka honey. They are gluten free.

See also Cressida's round-up of the show at Foods Matter here

Monday, 5 September 2016

Satire that targets the weak is not satire

If making the pages of a national paper is your measure of success, then the White Moose Cafe in Dublin will I expect be feeling chuffed that their spoof 'Prove You're a Coeliac if you want GF Food' Facebook post - and the extraordinary international response it garnered - found its way into the pages of The Irish Times, and beyond.

Some laughed, some were appalled, and some fell in between. I've only seen a fraction of the thousands of responses, but the comedians at The WMC have kept up the facade of their joke in their comments, veering between some very funny responses, so-so sarcasm, and straightforward insults.

There is satire - and satire can be great - but good satire targets guilty parties or those in power or privilege or those whose consciences deserve a pricking. And those in power, those in privilege, in this case, are those who can and do eat anything they damn well like. I'm one of them.

They were not the target.

Yet neither were coeliacs.

Instead, the targets were those following gluten-free diets for reasons considered by the comedians at WMC to be foolish or inappropriate; people who don't really know what gluten is, but think they should avoid it anyway, because any number of believable and convincing wellness bloggers have stated categorically that it is evil.

Those caught in the subsequent fallout and crossfire included people with NCGS, because it doesn't exist one minute, and does exist the next, and this lack of full clarity in the world of science is viewed sceptically by those who fail to grasp how slowly good science should move.

They also included people who feel unwell and try in desperation to restrict their diets, however ill-advisedly, and whose doctors have perhaps shooed away and told them not to worry.

They also included people who, frankly, for whatever reason, have the right to put into their bodies whatever the hell they want and not put in whatever the hell they don't want too.

Nobody wants to be the person who does not have a sense of a humour, who cannot see the funnier side of life, and nobody wants to be told as much either, especially by someone who is laughing.

And neither do I. But as much as I found myself chuckling at some of the comments, some of them were deeply nasty, and the real problem of what WMC did is that they offered a social platform for sceptical wheat-eaters with a barely suppressed grudge against those who follow restricted diets to sneer and mock and loathe - thereby reinforcing such opinions and validating bigotry among surely many of the thousands who grabbed popcorn and went along to read, and consequently magnifying the difficulty of managing social situations and eating out safely if you do live a 'free from' life.

When it comes to targets for satire in this contentious field, those whose consciences deserve to be pricked are those who are encouraging the cultural phenomenon of restricted eating for invalid or faddish reasons, not those who are trying - and in many cases failing - to negotiate this bizarre new landscape while keeping their sanity intact - who may not get the joke, and may be left feeling rotten, picked-on and marginalised at being called arseholes.

Targeting the latter group is targeting those who may already be victims themselves, who may be confused about what is or what is not making them unwell or - more superficially - who are young and want to look like the Instagram ideal of beauty and fitness that they are presented with daily, and who hear consistently that gluten-free living can help them achieve that. It's mocking kids who think they'll have fewer friends and never get laid if they're not beach body ready, when we should be lampooning smug six-packed scientifically witless paleo-pushers.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Farro, triticale, emmer, einkorn, kamut, spelt ... do you know your alternative gluten grains?

A tweet by celiac blogger, cook and author Jules Dowler Shepard recently showed a shot of a restaurant menu, and a dish containing farro, which was labelled as gluten-free.

Farro is the Italian word for spelt, but in the US it appears to describe the cooked grain of any one of several ancient or heritage wheat species - among which spelt, but also einkorn and emmer.

Whatever it is - gluten-free it ain't.

Any diagnosed coeliac will know to look out for wheat, barley and rye in any list of ingredients or menu dish description, but how many are aware of the rarer gluten-containing cereals which turn up increasingly?

Most are merely wheats - or triticum - by another name, and we are all familiar with the first two, but not all of us the others:

Triticum aestivum - common wheat / bread wheat (used in bread)
Triticum durum - durum wheat (used in pasta)
Triticum monococcum / boeoticum - einkorn wheat
Triticum dicoccum - emmer wheat
Triticum spelta - spelt wheat
Triticum turanicum / turgidum - Khorosan wheat / Kamut

Triticale, meanwhile, is a hybrid of rye and wheat; its name a portmanteau of triticum, and rye's Latin name, secale.

Along with barley (hordeum), these make up the main gluten-containing family grains - known collectively as triticeae.

Disconcertingly, there are plenty of other tritceae waiting in the wings for some imaginative chef to discover or a food manufacturer to market as the next supposed superfood. Check out the list of genera here, and feast your eyes on just one example, Tausch's Goatgrass.

EU allergen lawmakers - to whom we should be grateful - were well aware of the potential stumbling blocks which the alternative wheats (especially) constituted, and built in a terrific solution, which you can read in their technical guidance document on food allergen labelling based on EU FIC 1169/2011 (Clause 29), and which I'll reproduce here:

In other words, if you're using a wheat which many people don't know is a wheat, you have to say it's a wheat and highlight the word 'wheat'.

This is not always happening. I don't like to pick on one brand, but I hope the fact that I like and buy their products is some small consolation for Biona Organic, who are rightly acknowledging that spelt is an allergen, but wrongly failing to clarify that it is wheat:

I doubt this would trip up a coeliac (there's a 'contains gluten' warning out of shot), but nevertheless, and as Jules' example reminds us, you've got to always keep your wits about you.

Has it ever been any different?

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Why Lidl are not nuts

Spanish / Portuguese version
Lidl has recalled some batches of their Alesto Honey Peanuts because the word 'peanuts' does not appear on the label, as is required by Law. 

This echoes a recall of over three years ago by Booths, who withdrew some peanut products labelled 'monkey nuts' rather than 'peanuts' - a recall which was widely criticised, including by then RCGP chair Clare Gerada, but which, like this one, was absolutely correct, and which I defended here.

In the Lidl case, the word for peanut only appeared in Spanish and Portuguese, but not English. Nevertheless, Clause 30 from the FSA Guidance on Allergen and Miscellaneous Labelling Provisions is worth quoting once again as it still applies:

Whilst these may also be commonly referred to as ground nuts or monkey nuts, the term “peanuts” [their emphasis] should be used for allergen labelling purposes

Not unexpectedly, some casual observers and commentators are ridiculing the decision on social media. I'm surprised the Sun didn't have more fun with it, but perhaps they were unaware these were EU laws they could have gleefully trashed.

I'm repeating myself, but allergen labelling laws are there to protect consumers and to save lives. They must be stuck to by the letter, for any relaxation of the rules undermines the rules, and from there it's a slippery slope downwards towards confusion and inconsistency and health risk.

The rule is 'peanut(s)' must appear on labels. If you think it's silly to abide by this rule, then I'd be very interested to hear what you think the alternative rule should be? "'Peanuts' should appear on labels unless there's a nice picture of them on the front"? 

As they should be - in English
An adult peanut allergic, long used to managing their condition, would be unlikely to make a mistake with the Lidl product, but what about a foreigner? What about a well-meaning relative of a peanut allergic child? Again, an error is unlikely, but not impossible, though a bigger problem in this case is that the product may contain traces of tree nuts - a fact which also does not appear in English. We cannot take chances.

Although there have arguably been too many allergen recalls this year (see here, including another Lidl one concerning a yogurt failing to mention 'milk' on the label), one such as this does offer continuing reassurance to the food allergic community that manufacturers, supermarkets and the FSA are on the ball regarding the issue.

Although there may well be room for improvement, the rules are in decent health, and appear to be working well. We should be pleased about this, not sneery, nor mocking, nor sarcastic.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Low FODMAP foods are coming!

Although there are lots of low-FODMAP products out there (which, if you're on a FODMAP restricted diet, your dietitian can help you find), and many gluten-free products (such as flours) happen to be incidentally low-FODMAP, the number of brands marketing themselves exclusively or primarily as low FODMAP is still quite low. Below is a selection.

Fodify Foods is a new brand started by two FODMAP-trained dietitians. They currently have a ready made tomato sauce, a ready made curry sauce and a trio of spice mixes in their range.

Slightly Different Foods is another new company offering catering and retail supplies of foods and meals free from onion, garlic, lactose and gluten-containing grains.

Lauren Loves is the newest kid on the block, and they make low FODMAP pasta sauce.

The Australians, meanwhile, are perhaps a little ahead of us - understandable, given it is the birthplace of the low FODMAP diet. Fodmapped calls itself the 'world's first FODMAP food brand' and includes a range of sauces, stocks and soups - but not yet available outside Australia and New Zealand.

trueself make low FODMAP snack bars - including lemon poppy, banana cinnamon and pumpkin spice.

Also Australian are SOME Foods, who describe themselves as food producers with a low FODMAP focus. They have a six-strong range of Italian, Indian and Thai cooking sauces, as well as a selection of spice fusions. They have distribution only in Australia and are currently looking at international shipping.

In the States, there is Nicer Foods - makers of FODMAP friendly foods, including bouillon cubes, garlic / onion infused olive oils, spice blends - and the Be Nice Low-FODMAP diet bars - cereal bars made with quinoa, peanut butter, rice syrup, chocolate, rice protein, coconut oil and chia - which have their own dedicated website. They do ship internationally - to the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - as well as some continental European nations. Click through to their shop here.

Finally, take a look at Casa de Sante, who make lemon tonic / wellness infusions, and herb and spice mixes, which are free from onion and garlic. Currently, they deliver only within the US.

Encouragingly, there are also FODMAP friendly certification initiatives - The FODMAP Friendly Food Program and the Monash University Low FODMAP Certification Program - which should become more widespread internationally, and will help shoppers with IBS find suitable foods.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Celiachia: Tutto ciò che è utile sapere

There are lots of benefits and pleasures to writing books - when grateful readers get in touch with you to thank you, the odd royalty payment to spend at the pick'n'mix counter, permission to have business cards bringing bearing 'author' - but one of the most welcome is your work being translated into another language.

So here is Celiachia: Tutto ciò che è utile sapere - the Italian version of Coeliac Disease: What you need to know - which has just been released. I'm delighted that a relatively small and dedicated publishing company called Tarka have taken the book on, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing a copy.

My first book was translated into German, and my second into Romanian, but this one feels a little more satisfying, not only because of my Italian background and the prospect of actually being able to read myself in translation for the first time (sadly my Romanian is a little rusty ...), but also because of the seriousness with which coeliac disease and gluten-free eating are taken in Italy - it's good to know the book is considered good enough to be part of that overall picture.

The book is available only from Italian outlets currently - Amazon Italia and Mondadori Store.