Free from taste, texture and calories? The battle to deliver more choice and create tastier, healthier gluten free food. By Sue Warren
Eating healthily continues to be an evolving topic fraught with controversial debate, strong opinion and some might argue, a great deal of misconception. Whether the food you are eating claims to be lower in fat, sugar and salt or claims it is free from common allergens like gluten, dairy and nuts, there can be a stigma attached that is hard to shake off. The notion that food free from certain ingredients or lower in fat is bland and tasteless, is an assumption that many forward-thinking food manufacturers are fighting to change.
Clean eating is the name of the game today and it is becoming more important to many people. This is largely due to our increased awareness of the foods we eat and how it can affect both our wellbeing and our environment. Provenance is also important as we build a greater understanding of where our food comes from and how it’s produced. As consumers, our expectations are increasing and we want great tasting foods that won’t negatively impact our health.
A shift in mind-set starts with better education
The challenge is there can be a stigma attached to some healthy foods or at least a general underlying feeling that healthy and free from foods cost a lot more than those that are higher in fat for example. Of course, this isn’t always the case but it is a perception that many people have and because of this, retailers and manufacturers need to work harder to educate the market and to start shifting the mind-set away from these assumptions. It won’t happen overnight of course, but we need to start somewhere if we are to support the change in culture that is needed.
Despite the topicality of allergens and the rise in people needing to adjust their diet to avoid certain foods, the Free From sector also faces its share of misconceptions. Historically, the perception of gluten free foods for instance, is that these products taste bad or bland and are expensive – another common complaint has been that the texture of gluten free foods resembles that of cardboard.
Of course, there may well have been some truth in this view in the beginning, when food manufacturers new to the market and concept were at the early development stages of these products. However, with the manufacturers focus, understanding and investment in NPD the results have significantly improved products on the market.
Gluten free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy
The market has of course progressed so much further in the last few years alone – but it takes time to changes people’s views. Think of it like an invention that improves and gets better over time. The issue of healthy food vs. gluten free is an interesting one too as there seems to be another myth that gluten free is always a healthier choice, but that is definitely not the case. A gluten free muffin will not necessarily be a healthier option compared with a muffin containing gluten. Double cream is gluten free but it doesn’t make it the ideal health food – the issue is, our expectations are somewhat blurred and education will play a big part in demystifying those.
From a positive perspective, products and manufacturing techniques have evolved dramatically over recent years and the progress has been amazing. Today we can be confident in demonstrating that gluten free products can – and do in many cases – taste as good as non-gluten free with many people unlikely to be able to tell the difference between them. This remains the focus and consumer requirement, gluten free shouldn’t be a compromise in any product or category.
Creating tastier food to stay ahead of the game
Some larger retailers are also insisting that unless a product is absolutely expected to have gluten (i.e. wheat crackers), then it should be certified gluten free as standard. The gluten free information is there for those looking for it – but it is not always highlighted or labelled under gluten free branding. This effectively makes these products ‘mainstream’ despite being gluten free – but with most people totally unaware of the fact.
When products are good enough to avoid being pigeonholed in the gluten free category, the consumer perception will begin to change but it will take time. The industry needs to have faith and to keep doing what it is doing and place the focus on continuous improvement. To stay ahead of the game and give consumers what they want in terms of healthier food, manufacturers need to continue to look for ways to create tastier products in the sector. Food is about all about taste and texture as well as the visual look. Removing the artificial ingredients can in some cases, take time and some significant NPD to maintain flavour and texture quality; this is a continuous process for many manufacturers.
A sensible approach to removing unnecessary salt, fat and sugar for example is also key to keeping ahead of the competition but we have to be realistic as well – a salty snack needs salt, a fruitcake needs sweetening.
Nowhere left to hide
Developing tasty food that is also healthy means looking more closely at those natural flavours that can negate the need for salt and the artificial flavour enhancers often used in products. The push to create inherently healthier products has been gaining traction for some years. Clear food labelling has really helped to both educate the consumer and drive the manufacturer to make improvements because the visibility of the real nature of the products leaves nowhere to hide.
It is still surprising (and disappointing) to see how manufacturers get ‘creative’ on their food labelling; a recent change in legislation in the US now requires manufacturers to stop using the term ‘evaporated cane juice’ as an ingredient name for sugar. This kind of clear attempt to mislead the consumer is counterproductive to the great progress in transparency being made in the majority of the industry – but this is something that is thankfully getting clearer.
Not always saints – but more choice
An increase in diet intolerances (and celebrity-mirrored lifestyle diets) has also fuelled the need for ‘healthier’ and cleaner products. But ten years from now the big selling point for the consumer will still be choice. People want options, not everyone wants to eat like a saint all of the time, sometimes we feel like that packet of crisps or that slice of pizza. A good range of options with clarity of the nutritional and health attributes will allow individuals to make clearer more informed choices from a point of knowledge and deeper understanding – and that can only be a good thing.
Sue Warren is Strategic Development Director at Wellaby’s. Wellaby’s has recently launched Simple Bakes, a new range of tasty, totally moreish, savoury snacks that everyone can feel free to enjoy. These delicious wholegrain snacks are also free from most common allergens including gluten, nuts and eggs and they contain no diary.