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Being told you are intolerant to a particular food can make buying and cooking food more difficult. So what role can free-from foods play?

Why go free-from?

“Customers buy free-from foods for many reasons,” says Rob Whinnett of Blasta Wholefoods health store in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. “These include diagnosed medical conditions (such as coeliac disease, diabetes/pre-diabetes, lactose intolerance or hypothyroidism), food intolerances (often following blood or other food intolerance tests), candida overgrowth or lifestyle choices (such as vegetarians, vegans and paleos). We sell a large range of free-from foods in store. The most popular would be gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, yeast-free, egg-free and sugar-free.”

“We see lots of media chat decrying ‘lifestyle choice’ and that free-from foods are a current fashion, but our customers are too switched on to be following a simple fad,” says Jill Bell of Well and Good health store in Midleton, Co Cork. “They come because we can answer queries about ingredients, they ask our opinion on whether they might feel healthier by avoiding, say, wheat, or because they have already tried omitting an ingredient and have felt the benefits of doing so.”

Top advice

“After talking about types of symptoms – constipation, a previous IBS diagnosis, bloating etc – their duration and timing, we might suggest customers do some detective work such as keeping a food diary or excluding wheat for a time,” says Jill Bell. “There is a huge choice of dairy-free cheeses as well as non-dairy ‘milk’ for those who suspect dairy intolerance. Probiotics are the number one suggestion to help improve gut function.”

“We encourage customers to maintain a varied diet despite not being able to eat particular foods or food groups,” says Rob Whinnett. “This will include such issues as ensuring that people on a gluten-free or grain-free diet get enough dietary fibre and are aware of ‘hidden’ sources of gluten; encouraging diabetics to manage their carbohydrate as well as their sugar intake (and also avoid too many ‘diabetic’ foods which are often full of artificial sweeteners); encouraging vegetarians/vegans to monitor vitamin B12 levels; and identifying the foods that are naturally free from the ingredient being avoided rather than concentrating on free from processed foods.”

Can free-from be bad for you?

One issue to be aware of when following a diet free from a particular ingredient is that if something is taken out of the food then something else has to be added, and this may not always be a healthy ingredient.

“We encourage people to concentrate on the foods they can eat rather than those they can’t and be more adventurous with their food choices,” says Rob Whinnett. “As a recently diagnosed coeliac I can empathise with how difficult it is to have to make sudden and quite dramatic changes to your diet. It has encouraged me to be a lot more creative in the kitchen and to try new foods that were not previously in my diet. If you choose carefully you can have an interesting and varied diet even if there are certain foods you have to avoid.”

“Though we sell a lot of meat-free sausages and burgers, they wouldn’t be top of our menu choices,” says Jill Bell. “As with every diet, convenience foods are a handy go-to when time is short, but cooking fresh foods from scratch is the ultimate choice. Of course vegetarians and particularly vegans need to take care they have an adequate intake of protein which is where tofu, nuts, seeds, lentils and beans are so important. We have a useful hand-out on vegetarian and vegan diets which is often reassuring for mothers of teenagers who decide to give up meat.”

Health store saves

If you have a food intolerance your local health store is the place to shop. You will find there a wide range of free-from foods including gluten-free bread, bread crumbs, biscuits and crackers as well as breakfast cereals plus rice, flax and tapioca flours. In the dairy-free fridge you can now buy yogurt, cream and cheese as well as milk. Most are made from rice, oats, coconut, almonds, hazelnuts and hemp. Bear in mind, though, that almond and hazelnut milk should be avoided if you have a nut allergy and hemp milk may not be ideal for anyone with a seed allergy.

Gourmet raw food chef Veronica O’Reilly

“From running the Healthy Habits raw food café in Wicklow town over a 10 year period I have found people generally want to avoid gluten, dairy, soya, sugar, nuts and salt. There is plenty of food available for those who need to avoid one ingredient, but if a person has to be free from more than one item it is more difficult. Either it has no wheat but it does have eggs or dairy or sugar and these people can’t eat it.

“Most of the time it is social occasions that people have most difficulty with. Either they have to bring their own food or contact the restaurant they are going to. Sometimes family occasions are also difficult as hosts also find it difficult to know what to cook.

“Generally quinoa and millet are good foods to have to hand as everyone or nearly everyone can eat them. Most vegetables and fruit are also great. Making sauces and soups from scratch is also great as you know exactly what you have put in to it. Susan Jane White’s recipes are excellent and would suit most people. The Happy Pear and Oliver McCabe’s books also have great recipes.”

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