Reputable fashion or lifestyle magazines often have articles on how to adopt healthier eating habits, and “free-from” diets routinely appear to be the answer. So what are they exactly and why is this trend skyrocketing? We get the lowdown from Nada Alameddine, partner at Hodema consulting services.
Down with gluten
The first, and main enemy, is gluten. The oldest archive referring to the celiac disease, which causes inflammation in the small intestines, dates back to AD 2. Fastforward to the 21st century, where gluten has become a bad word, and everyone seems to be diagnosed with sensitivity to this group of proteins. Gluten is everywhere in our everyday diet, from flour to pasta, but it is also in less obvious products such as certain types of yogurts, some meats and even chocolate and chips. Whether it is all just hype advertised by celebrities in magazines and social media platforms or that wheat has become our worst enemy, the current anxiety surrounding bread and cereal-based products has led to a rising trend of gluten-free goods and restaurants. In the last couple of years, quitting gluten has even become mainstream with alternative options now readily available in the market – a market valued over USD 4 million worldwide. This trend is expected to continue growing at a steady pace. Domino’s Pizza pioneered the move with its crust-free option, while other fast-food chains are still struggling to offer wheatsafe menus.
The US is currently the largest gluten-free market, with around 3 million Americans suffering from celiac disease and up to 40 million “voluntary restrictors” following the same diet despite having no proven medical condition. So there’s definitely room for new products, as consumers call for more transparency and sourcing. All sorts of gluten-free flour substitutes are becoming popular, especially the grain-free ones pushed by the paleo diet boom as well as oats. Black bean, mung bean, lentil, cauliflower, coconut and almond flours are emerging as alternative options. There are even fruit flours, such as apple or banana and companies are looking into coffee flour. But the snack and lunch on-the-go segments are the most targeted by the sector, as they represent a large size of the food market. The beverage business is also following the trend, with a whole range of gluten-free liquors — such as vodka, tequila and beer — hitting the shelves. Believe it or not, you’ll even find gluten-free pet food in certain stores in America.
Farewell to meat…
The “free-from” movement is not only about gluten, although it still leads the pack. In the early 2000s, low-fat, lowcarb and whole-food diets were all the rage. But they have lost clout and it is now all about quitting some produces entirely. As vegetarian and vegan regimen go mainstream, alternatives to meat are gaining momentum. Tofu, soy, lentils, chickpeas and mushrooms are replacing traditional meat patties in many restaurants such as Meet The Veganz in Beirut, Veganity in Dubai and Vterra in Kuwait. Purists can even find meat-free produces that are also gluten-free as more and more health conscious individuals are pairing glutenfree, vegan and dairy-free habits.
… and goodbye to dairy
The dairy-free trend is gaining popularity, evidenced by the increased demand for soy, rice, coco and oat milk. Yogurt, cream and butter products free of dairy are following suit. Long gone are the days when only a handful of trailblazers joined those with food intolerances on their gluten, meat or dairy-free crusades. Back then, most gluten-free bread was unappetizing, and soya milk tasted like chalk. Progress in food research has made them not only edible but also tasty. Artificial sweeteners have fulfilled the role of natural substitutes like stevia, honey, coconut and yacon. The “free-from” trend has also benefited from consumers’ growing mistrust in the way manufacturers produce food, which has been exacerbated by a number of food scandals. Avoiding some ingredients forces consumers to read labels carefully and thus feel more in control of what they eat.