Free-from goes mainstream

Free-from goes mainstream

A look at the increasing dining-out options for those with allergies and dietary intolerances

With the introduction of EU legislation in 2014 requiring food service outlets, including restaurants, cafés and takeaways, to provide information on 14 major allergens, those with food intolerances are finally able to consider venturing beyond the house salad. While some businesses see this as yet another directive from meddling Brussels, others choose to view it as an opportunity to attract a growing demographic.

According to Coeliac UK Coeliac disease affects one in 100 people, and although only around 1% of the population have a formal diagnosis, increasing numbers are choosing some kind of free-from diet because of perceived health or environmental benefits. As the nation's awareness of food intolerance and diagnoses grow, so does the appetite for better meat-free, gluten-free, lactose-free and nut-free options.
With similarities to the way organic food was inducted into mainstream retail a decade ago, supermarkets have seen the potential in this relatively untapped marketplace. When M&S introduce 150 new free-from lines it's time to take note. Progressive restaurant chains, keen to keep pace with the demand, have started to offer more free-from options such as gluten-free.

Prezzo, the chain of upmarket Italian restaurants, are prominent in this regard. They've made a particular push to ensure free-from options are available across their outlets and the initiative has helped them garner a reputation via social media and word of mouth. At the 2013 Pizza, Pasta and Italian Good Industry Awards (PAPA), they won an award for best marketing campaign in relation to their Healthy New Year campaign, following it up with the gong for Italian Restaurant Chain of the year in 2014.

'More people than ever are on a gluten-free diet and it's important that we ensure they have a good choice of food to enjoy if they choose to come to a Prezzo restaurant,' says Prezzo spokesman Eddie Gershon. 'We are keen to appeal to a wide range of guests in our restaurants and offer all of our classic pizzas with a gluten-free base.'

On the Prezzo web site, filters are provided to allow users to view the menu for vegetarians, gluten-free, and lactose-free as well as overall allergen information.

The flip side of building a reputation for catering for dietary intolerances and allergies is the risk of getting it wrong. The allergen community is sizeable (and extremely vocal), so bad news travels fast. The use of defensive labelling is the conservative option for those with complicated supply chains think how many packages are a bit vague about how intimate their contents may or may not have been with nuts.

However, as Prezzo and others have shown, a bit of boldness can pay dividends. Now in their ninth year, the FreeFrom Food Awards have recently launched the FreeFrom Eating Out Award. Pizza Express took the coveted prize in 2014 aided by their decision to use gluten-free flour in all of their pizzas.

Finally, for many, eating out should mean that free-from choices are freely available.