Not too long ago, asking for something free-from put you firmly in the special needs category of eaters. Everything had to be made from scratch, or you gratefully munched on something picked up from the dustier corners of a health food shop. Those were dark days indeed for those who didn’t have the time or inclination to squeeze milk out of almonds, or charm bread out of gluten free flour.

Since then, year on year we have seen an increase in free-from products from coconut yogurt to hot cross buns as plump and juicy looking as their wheat filled counterparts. Free-from is the biggest growth sector in the food market and increasingly a life-style choice that people are making whether they have a medical reason to do so, or just feel better eating that way.

There is often a misconception that gluten or dairy are actually bad for you and that giving them up is the healthy choice. I’ve been offered ‘guilt free’ brownies by clean-eating enthusiasts that were as packed with sugar as the next brownie, but happened to be gluten and dairy free. Many people are delighted with the increasingly wide range of products available for those who need, (or choose) to go without gluten, dairy and sugar, but looks can be deceiving and those products are often highly processed and full of junk.

Not so Free-From

We know that whole-grains, nuts and pulses are good for us right? Brown food scores high on the worthy-o-meter, especially if it has chewy, nobly bits in it. If you check out the free from aisle, you will see granary breads in papery packets that appear wholesome and nutritious, but the ingredient labels tell a different story, listing modified starches, damaged fats, caramel, colourings, preservatives, humectants and emulsifiers alongside the refined flour. These other breads may look the part, but they’re a far cry from real stuff. Real bread should contain just flour, yeast, salt and water.

Many of the modified ingredients can cause inflammation in the body; resulting in symptoms such as an over-active immune system, allergies, food intolerances, joint pain and ultimately chronic disease. Of course, the odd bit of junk food doesn’t do anyone any harm, but people are eating ever-greater quantities of these foods as the choices expand.

Manufacturers also use emulsifiers to provide the familiar ‘mouth feel’ of gluten and dairy, yet their effects on our bodies are little understood. The most worrying type of emulsifiers are; carrageenan, gellan gum and hydroxymethylcellulose (HMC), commonly found in free-from milks, coconut milk and dairy free ice creams. These emulsifiers appear to cause the fine mesh of cells lining our guts to open up a little more than they ordinarily would, making the gut walls more porous; something that is not such an issue if it happens occasionally, but can become a real problem if it occurs every time you drink a cup of tea or eat a slice of toast.

A porous or leaky gut can cause auto immune reactions to food particles that are not broken down by the time they reach the blood stream, resulting in allergies, chronic fatigue and unexplained pain. When you consider that the people choosing these foods often start with poor digestion and slightly porous guts, the fact this is exacerbated by the food they are encouraged to eat by their GP or well-meaning nutritionist is almost tragic.

 So what to eat if you can’t eat gluten or dairy?

The healthy free-from choices are the same as regular foods – that is to say as close to basic produce as possible, with as little meddling as is practical. Get yourself some cookery books and learn how to cook from scratch if you don’t know how; many cuisines are inherently free-from such as Japanese and Middle Eastern, or even the humble roast dinner.

There are many courses around the country where you can learn to bake bread, make your own nut milks and ferment vegetables to improve your gut health. If you don’t have time for all that, make positive choices; there are some brands out there pioneering the minimal intervention route for free-from; Rude Health, Coyo and Provamel amongst others. You’ll be able to tell them apart because their labels feature ingredients that you recognize from your kitchen cupboards.

You as the consumer have the power to change the face of free-from by demanding real products made from real food. You can spread knowledge and change other people’s lives for the better, because most people don’t want to eat food that makes them ill, they just don’t know how to pick it out in a lineup of cleverly packaged imposters.

Naomi Devlin is the author of River Cottage Gluten Free (Bloomsbury 2016) and teaches gluten free, seasonal nutrition and happy digestion courses at River Cottage in Devon and gluten free and gut health courses at Otter Farm in Devon. Her forthcoming book, Food for a Happy Gut will be published in April 2017.