Have Free-From Foods And Drinks Become 'Cool'?

Source: scan.lusu.co.uk/

I am standing in the queue in Costa, the lack of air conditioning reminiscent of a Middle Eastern doctor's office. There are five people in front of me, each one impatiently tapping their toes or drumming their hands on their forearms, waiting to get their caffeine fix. The first girl orders a skinny soya latte. The second, a decaf soya cappuccino. The third, a skinny hazelnut decaf soya hot chocolate. Hold the cream. The fourth, after carefully scouring the menu, also opts for a hot chocolate. And a gluten-free scone. I peer out from the queue, wondering if the stream of customers ahead of me are either a) pompous, b) related or c) coincidentally intolerant to caffeine, gluten or dairy. Then, I recognize the girl who ordered the decaf soya cappuccino. She was in here 3 days earlier, asking for a hazelnut latte with whipped cream. The man who ordered a gluten-free scone changed his mind as he was paying and pointed at the three-tier red velvet cake. Sighing, I walk up to the exhausted barista who passive-aggressively asks how she can help me (sort out your staffing issues for a start babes), glaring at the growing queue behind me; my initial desire for a decaf soya mocha evaporates and I meekly request a peppermint tea.

As much as my order might make readers assume I am a pretentious hipster who spends most of her days strolling around Brick Lane discussing consumerism and the importance of ethically-sourced aubergines, I am not (though I do enjoy the occasional organic tagine). After being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008, I became intolerant to dairy and caffeine. Even the smallest drop of milk in my tea would send me straight to the toilet, reeling in pain. Coffee became a distant memory, and a nice cuppa after work was replaced with rummaging through the cupboards for that camomile tea that I got as a souvenir from Yorkshire 4 years ago.
And I'm not alone; up to 15% of the UK's population is said to be lactose-intolerant, with many more being unaware that intolerance is the cause of their symptoms. We are the only species in the world that ingests milk from another species; because every other species drinks milk only during infancy, lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose in the body) is not needed. However, some humans experienced a mutation in the lactase gene, resulting in them being able to process the sugar. And yet, two thirds of the human race isn't actually able to properly digest lactose in adulthood.

In the last two years, there has been a huge and evident increase in the amount of dairy-free products available in supermarkets. While rice, almond, soya and coconut milk have graced the shelves of health food and specialist shops for years, they are finally finding their way into regular food stores such as Tesco and Sainsbury's, with many now having their very own 'free-from' section. But we all know that lactose and gluten intolerances didn't just appear a few years ago, so why a sudden boost in these products?

Source: marketingmagazine.co.uk
Nat, who has been working in the coffee industry for over 5 years, has noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of customers ordering dairy-free options since she began. "My first coffee shop job was at an independent cafe in south London. My boss was a Kiwi, and in Australia and New Zealand, soya milk is massive, hardly anyone drinks cow's milk. Now, it's all over the UK, particularly London." And it's not just soya milk that is getting attention. Alpro, the UK's leading company for products alternative to cow's milk, has now released coconut, almond and hazelnut milks, along with their already growing collection of yoghurts, desserts, butters and sauces. "People are now conscious of the fact that soya milk has tonnes of added sugar," says Nat. "They want natural, unprocessed milk, the unsweetened stuff. Now we've got people coming in saying they can't tolerate soya, so they choose almond milk instead."

With so many options now available, it's no wonder customers are steering toward alternatives. The UK coffee industry has boomed in the last few years, with over 16,500 coffee shops existing all over the country, outperforming the UK retail sector. The British have become coffee snobs, and with options ranging from cold brew, to doppio, to a cortado, an oily black Nescafe from the local cafe is no longer sufficient. Could the exposure to new and interesting ways to drink coffee be the reason for it's rise? "I used to have a lady that came in everyday and order a regular latte with two sugars," Nat says. "After about a month, she started ordering her latte with soya milk. I thought 'oh, that's odd, maybe her stomach can't handle it any more.' I finally plucked up the courage to ask her why she switched to soya, and her response was 'I read an article in a magazine that stated soya milk contains large amounts of oestrogen which will make my breasts grow.'"

So are gluten and dairy-free diets just another fad that people are willing to buy into? Soya and almond milk boast that they are naturally low in saturated fat, contain omega-3 fats and, because they are plant based, are cholesterol free. Cutting out gluten is said to aid weight loss and decrease bloating, with a high percentage of free-from alternatives containing less fat and carbohydrates than it's counterparts. Although the sluggishness may be true for many, there is no solid proof that losing a few pounds is the result of going gluten-free. Could it be that by following the diet, they are simply eating better?

Gluten-free eating may show an improvement in health for some, but it certainly isn't a cheap lifestyle to maintain. A loaf of GF Genius bread in Tesco is £3 compared to a 70p Hovis loaf almost double it's size. One litre of soya milk is £1.35, while two litres of skimmed milk is £1. In Asda, a free-from sponge cake is £3 whereas a regular is 90p, and two gluten-free margherita pizzas are priced at a whopping £5. It's evident that the ingredients and processes used to make GF products are expensive, and yet the only people that are financially suffering are the ones with intolerances. As the industry grows (the British gluten-free market is worth £238 million annually and growing), it now seems that free-from options have rapidly become less associated with hippies and Gwyneth Paltrow, and more of a preference for the health conscious.

Source: udisglutenfree.com

For some however, the gluten-free diet isn't a choice. Approximately 1% of  humans suffer from coeliac disease, an autoimmune reaction to any foods that contains glutenr. Although supermarkets have increased accessibility to free-from products, eating out is still proving to be difficult for coeliac sufferers, despite the addition of gluten-free pastas and pizza bases in certain restaurants. Phil, who was diagnosed with the disease a few years ago, rarely eats out due to the lack of allergy advice in food joints. "I get too self-conscious to ask for gluten-free menus, and I've found that even in London, people working in restaurants can be completely clueless about allergies or coeliac disease," he says. "In places like burger joints, the fries are made in the same oil as battered things, so I can't have any of that stuff. Things like gluten-free buns are always smaller and basically flavourless." Because of the growing masses of customers requesting gluten-free options, restaurants are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between genuine intolerance or finickiness. "I think there's a general feeling that everyone who's gluten-free is doing it by choice," says Phil. People say stuff like 'Do you have any gluten-free buns? No? Okay I'll just have the normal one then. And a beer.'"

Although there is a evident demand for gluten-free foods, it's hard to believe the manufacturers, cafe and restaurant owners are considering the people that need it the most. I recently visited a cafe in central London where the food cabinet displayed a mouth-watering selection of gluten-free macaroons and cakes - brushing against the corner of wheat sandwiches. When I asked the barista why this was, he was baffled as to why I thought it was an issue. I explained to him that coeliacs should not come into any contact with gluten whatsoever, so placing GF cupcakes next to gluten-saturated bread simply doesn't cater for people with intolerances, to which he responded "very few people who buy the macaroons are actually intolerant - they just like the idea of a gluten-free alternative."

So what does the future hold for gluten and dairy-free mania? With more crazy food fads appearing weekly, it seems that cutting out gluten or dairy isn't nearly as harmful as other restricting diets such as the Atkins. While some have a choice of what they eat or drink, others sadly don't have that luxury, and as much as intolerances are a pain in ass (literally), the increasing options are ultimately highly beneficial for sufferers...and those who simply like annoying baristas in busy coffee shops.

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