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It’s The Little Things: Allergy & Free From Show 2012

Are you going to London for the Allergy & Free From Show 2012? It’s less than a fortnight away now, but if you don’t have a ticket yet, you can still get a free ticket here.

We’ll be there.

We went last year, and it was great. Exhausting, because it is such a big event, but really enjoyable. We talked to very many different manufacturers, and learnt a lot about new products and services. I just love to see the range of products available to us constantly increasing… and I am delighted by the choice now available!

But the best bit, for me, was when we took a break for lunch in the cafe, which was selling only gluten-free products. That was excellent in itself (and they were pre-packaged, so no risk of cross-contamination). But there was more…

We sat down to eat, and I tucked in to my gluten free houmous and red pepper sandwich, without realising that my teenage daughter didn’t know how to open the triangular box to get at hers. Because she’d never, ever, eaten a sandwich that had been wrapped up and made available for sale before.

I’ll write that again: she’d never eaten a bought gluten free sandwich before. Obviously she’s eaten gluten free sandwiches all her life, but a year ago, we’d never seen one available for sale, still less one wrapped up in a triangular display box.

Such a little thing—a tiny thing—but it shows just how different her experience of life has been from that of most of her peers.

And she was thrilled. Here it is, a year later, and it still comes up in conversation occasionally. The time she had a sandwich like everybody else. And every single time I think about it, I feel a little weepy.

Thanks to Fresh! for that experience. And we’re heading back down to London next week for another visit to the Allergy and Free From Show for more excitement. There’ll be a lot going on, including:

  • try and buy – shopping for new products
  • free seminars
  • consultant dieticians
  • free-from cooking classes from Sainsburys
  • demonstrations
  • parent workshops
  • masterclasses for health professionals.

Will you be there? Or maybe you’d prefer Liverpool, in October? Either way, you can get your free tickets here.

Do come! There might even be sandwiches again…

Gluten Free Tipping Point?

Are we at a tipping point?

Has living gluten free finally become normalised?

In the course of one day last week, I learnt that:

  • one of the restaurants in our nearest town has a gluten free menu
  • one of the bakeries in that town has a poster in the window, advertising that they stock gluten free products (it turns out these are from the Gluten Free Kitchen, and they are delicious, particularly the carrot cake and the coffee and walnut…
  • and the cafe down the road is stocking Delice de France gluten free bread rolls and sweet muffins. I didn’t even know Delice de France offered gluten free products!

So: is the gluten free diet becoming the norm, and acceptable in the way that, say, the vegetarian diet is acceptable? Or was this just one day in which I really looked at my local town?

Free From Food Awards Winners 2012

Finally home after an exciting jaunt to London for the Free From Foods Awards ceremony last night. You may remember that I was invited to judge a couple of the Awards categories a while ago, which was fun, so I was looking forward to the awards evening.

It turned out to be even better than I’d expected.

Imagine a room full of people with huge enthusiasm for free from food: tiny specialist companies and big retailers, journalists and bloggers, nutritionists and food development specialists, and add the party elements of delicious (and safe to eat) canapés, gluten free beer and wine… You can imagine the noise level!

It was a bigger event than I’d expected, and more international, too. There were around 150 people there – up from the 40 that the awards started with 5 years ago. It’s obviously going from strength to strength, refining and adding to the categories for entrants over time. Next year, for the first time, there’ll be a category for children’s free from foods for example. Now that’s something to look forward to!

And I had a lot of interesting conversations.

Did you know, for example, that Mrs Crimbles (Stiletto Foods) has 40 product lines? I didn’t, as all I see are what my local stores will stock.

And as I moved around the room talking to as many different people as I could (I talked to about 35 different people, so I did pretty well) it became clear that there was a consistent theme to the evening.

Companies of all sizes face a problem in getting free from products in front of people like us, the end consumers. No doubt this is a problem for all food producers, but it seems to be a particular problem for this niche market for a number of reasons, some of which are:

  • Some of the big supermarkets do a great job at developing their own free from brand (I think Sainsbury’s are particularly good for gluten free food; the Tesco team I spoke to last night were very proud of their new dairy-free range in the chilled cabinets). Both do a reasonable job at including non-own-brand products. In some other cases – and in smaller stores – there is less interest in this market. In all cases, there is limited shelf – and, particularly, freezer – space made available for free from products, which naturally means a limited range can be stocked. So: limited space can be a problem.
  • Another could be the perception that this is a small niche. Some of the companies seemed slightly surprised – though delighted! – by the interest of groups other than the intended group in certain products: for instance, vegans interested in dairy-free products. Others said that their products were not necessarily originally intended for the free from market, but that they were naturally free from various allergens. Both these angles I think indicate that these free from foods potentially have a wider market than is typically expected – not so niche after all!
  • Then, not all small companies want to have their products stocked by big retail, particularly if Big Retail want to white-label their products, or if there is a problem with scaling production to serve the needs of Big Retail. So the reach of these companies won’t be boosted by the extensive network of supermarkets or by their marketing power. And if the smaller companies do without the support of the larger retailers, then transport to the end consumer in small quantities can be a problem, particularly if the products are particularly delicate, or heavy.
  • And another reason is simply that there are very many small companies trying to market new products, and big retailers simply couldn’t stock them all, even if they wanted to. So the small companies have to find a marketing budget to bring the goods to our attention direct. Even with the heavy use of social media, and the goodwill of bloggers to review and publicise products, this can be difficult.

    Even large, well-known brands diversifying into gluten free may struggle to gain traction in the market. If the gluten free brands are a separate business unit, then they may not have the big money of the mainstream brands within the same company to throw behind marketing new ‘niche’ brands, even though they do have the benefit of some brand recognition carried over from the mainstream.

That’s why evenings such as last night are so significant. Winning an award can bring the small companies’ products to the notice of larger retailers, by providing some external recognition of the quality of their products. Even simply entering for an award can spread awareness.

And the publicity associated with the event may bring the brands to the attention of the consumer. After all, if we don’t know that the products are available, we can’t ask for them, and probably won’t even look – we wouldn’t know what to look for!

I talked briefly to the Food Resource Company, which works to help manufacturers from overseas to import products into the UK. This seems like a great service, as I can think of several products I’ve enjoyed elsewhere and wished we could obtain over here. I hope there are equivalent companies promoting our products ‘over there’…

So here’s the thing. I’d like us all to try the following:

  • Make an effort to find, try, and buy some of the products that gained recognition this year. And if you liked them, tell a free from friend. Spread the word!
  • Why not try out some of the online specialist free from supermarkets, such as Drossa, GoodnessDirect or Dietary Needs Direct? These may well stock some of the smaller brands that you might not find in the high-street supermarkets.
  • And if you can, do try shopping online directly from some of the smaller companies. I know there’s a postage cost involved, but if we don’t support these companies, there’s a risk that they’ll fold. And there are many good products being produced by very small companies that deserve to be better known.

Have a look at the list of award winners – I’m sure there’ll be something to tempt you in there. I’m certainly going to be doing some shopping…

And finally: congratulations to all those companies, big or small, who won an award!

The Black Farmer: Trial by Teenager

You already know we like the Black Farmer products; I’ve talked about them before. They’ve developed some new products, and sent some for us to review.

I assembled my expert team of five teenage meat-eaters (actually, it was a study evening at our house) and tried out the new products on them.

I didn’t describe or name the products at all—I knew that the mention of apple would put at least one of them off—I just asked for comments:

  • Black Farmer Beef Burgers

    “no gross strangly bits or wet stuff”

    You can tell this was a group of teenage testers, can’t you? Normally I buy supermarket brand 100% beef burgers, and hadn’t realised they were a bit gristly, because I don’t eat meat myself. I’m obviously going to have to switch, as these cooked nicely without producing any water or fatty bits…

  • Black Farmer’s Daughter Pork Meatballs; Black Farmer’s Daughter Beef Meatballs

    “it’s all good”

    The beef were slightly preferred (3:2), as the pork ones were apparently a little ‘sausagey’ for some, and the beef ones were slightly chewier and spicier (though not at all hot). One teenager commented on the “gritty bits”… which turned out to be herb stalks! Honestly, teenagers…

  • Black Farmer Pork and Apple Burgers

    “they were great, can we get them again?”

    What can I add to that? I love positive feedback on a meal, almost as much as I like help with the washing-up afterwards.

So will I source these myself, given the responses?

I think it will be worth the effort, and it will be extra trouble, because they are only currently available at Ocado. However, they are on promotion at the moment (til 19 April) and 15% off is worth having, wouldn’t you say?

I wish they were more widely available. Sainsburys, I’m looking at you…

Have you tried these yet? Let us know what you think of them.

Missing the Muffins

Back in November, I was invited up to Newcastle by Warburtons to visit their gluten free bakery. We were also given the opportunity to taste their newest products: muffins.

These were still secret at that time, so I couldn’t tell you about them, but we were delighted by them at the tasting; they have now been launched onto what should be a grateful gluten-free market.

I couldn’t go to the launch event at the end of January, but they kindly sent me a sample of the blueberry and cranberry muffins as a reminder. They’re just as good now as they were then. I especially love the lemon and poppy seed ones, but they are quite grown-up and lemony, so your gluten free child might prefer the blueberry ones. There’s also a fruit loaf, which is good hot and buttery, but I’m a big fan of the muffins.

These are little loaf-shaped cakes. I usually think that muffins are too large and dry, but these are fab: moist, with a good quantity of ‘bits’ to cake. Not too large, and delicious.

I know there are plenty of gluten free cake offerings on the market, but these are special, and I’d love them to ‘take’, and be a success. They could be offered to non-GF eaters, and they wouldn’t know… However, I haven’t spotted them anywhere in the wild yet, and I have looked.

Round here, there are a range of supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrisons, Co-Op and Aldi. Yet I haven’t seen these fab new products anywhere. I’ve looked on the Warburtons stockist locator, and despite there being plenty of places apparently stocking the bread products—including the community shop 3 miles away— there’s no listing of muffins near me.

I think I must live in a Warburtons Muffin desert, despite being a northerner! I’m going to have to make a nuisance of myself at the supermarket Customer Services again…

Have you seen them? When you do, buy a pack—they come in packs of two—and let me know what you think.