“Free” foods are taking the world by storm. From gluten-free to lactose free, via paleo diets to raw-only, we explore theories that claim to return to nature, but are often simply groundless.
Fad or fact: free-from foods“Free-from” is today’s hottest food trend. Gluten-free, sugar-free and lactose-free products are generating record sales and growth figures, with special sections expanding in supermarkets everywhere. This wave is the latest in a series of historical trends that each had their heyday and their lifespan over the last few decades: from the 1950s to the 1970s, “enriched” foods (with added vitamins, minerals, trace elements and food supplements) dominated; in the 1980s and 1990s, “light” or “diet” foods (artificial sweeteners, low fat, less salt) were the fashion, while today the “free-from” wave is turning into a veritable tsunami.
Fact or fadIn fact, the “free” movement is manifesting itself in three different ways. First and foremost, we see the appearance of traditional products with the removal of one or several constituents considered to be harmful: lactose-free milk, gluten-free bread, cereals and biscuits, sugar-free compotes, etc.). Second, there is the elimination upstream in the food production chain of elements considered to be hazardous or suspect: no pesticides, no GMOs, no artificial preservatives or coloring. Third, the most radical expression is the rejection of entire food categories considered to be intrinsically toxic: vegetarianism, vegan, raw diets (known in French as crusine), the paleo diet (advocating the consumption of only pre-agricultural foods, basically from the hunter-gatherer period of humankind) and then, of course medicinal diets.
There are of course some positive points in consumers being more demanding. The main change is undoubtedly the restriction of pesticides and artificial additives in the foods we eat, obliging the mass-consumption food industry to be more reasonable about how their products are being grown and processed.
Another thing to be said in favor of some of these restrictive approaches is that they enable people who do suffer from food-related medical problems to have wider access to what were previously hard-to-get products. There is no doubt that someone with a wheat allergy or celiac disease (severe gluten intolerance) can now get the products they need easily and that someone with diabetes has a wider choice of sugar-free products.
The problem lies elsewhere. As Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, food historian and editor of foodsmatter.com, states, "There has been a huge growth in the number of ‘voluntary restrictors’ – people who want to go gluten-free but don't have a medical reason."
So, without getting overly involved in the polemics about the scientific grounding of some of these beliefs and the economic interests that stand to gain from these movements, without mentioning the marketing advantages of these new food lines, it must be said that a major source of this reticence to certain foods is based on fear and wariness.
Let’s take the case of the most popular trend these days, gluten-free, which is growing exponentially. In certain countries there are 10 or even 20 times more consumers of these products than people who are truly allergic or intolerant. In fact, certain nutritionists and medical specialists fear that some people potentially suffering from a real food disorder may not be diagnosed properly because they believe they have found the solution by voluntary restriction. It is estimated that at least one third of people suffering from allergies or food intolerance in developed countries are unaware of the true nature of their pathologies. So, how do you distinguish fact from fad?
Staying free from prejudiceThe first historical fact is that every restrictive food trend has dwindled over time and has led to a return to the very basic notion of a varied and balanced diet, while eating reasonable quantities of all foods. The danger related to artificial sweeteners is a good case in point, as is the phenomenon of excessive consumption of diet foods. In France, a popular food critic, Jean-Pierre Coffe, famously said, “it’s better to eat a bit of real cheese than huge quantities of light cheese.”
Commonsense (almost) always wins out. Each food provides an advantage, but also has its inconveniences. For example, cheese contains less lactose than milk and is therefore easier to digest, but it has more fat. Fruits contain fibers, vitamins and minerals, but also have sugar content. Natural sugar (essentially fructose) is slower and is less demanding on the digestive system than refined sugar (sucrose), but should still be consumed in reasonable amounts.
The list is long and often complex, but most epidemiological studies, based on representative samples over long periods of time do confirm the principle of a varied and balanced diet. The most often-cited case, the Mediterranean or Cretan diet, features no exclusions, but is simply based on a degree of moderation and, above all, on respecting nature and a balanced lifestyle, both physically and psychologically.
Freeing what’s best in natureIn this issue of our a e-newsletter, the scientist and cook Raphaël Haumont, founder of the “French Centre for Culinary Innovation” and holder of the Paris Saclay University Academic Chair of the “Cuisine of the Future”, talks about “bio-mimesis” in his interview as the guiding principle of his research. “We don’t try to do better than nature, but simply to understand and benefit from what nature does best,” he says; “We are constantly seeking to bring out the intrinsic qualities of the natural product. In a certain way, the “Cuisine of the Future” is the natural and logical development of the Nouvelle Cuisine that emerged in the 1970s. The difference today is that our approach is probably a bit less restrictive. For example, you can simply appreciate a peach at its best, without any need to transform it in any way, if it’s been grown naturally and picked when it’s perfectly ripe. You can also enhance its taste features by making a sorbet or a simple mousse or by combining it with other fruits and seasonings. And then, nothing prevents you from concocting a good old-fashioned Pêche Melba, which Escoffier wouldn’t have shunned at, by using natural ingredients and a reasonable proportion of sugar and fat. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of excess now and again,” he declares.
Free from complexesMartin Lippo, chef and head of Nitroschool (https://martinlippo.com/nitroschool/) in Barcelona, also interviewed in this edition of the e-newsletter, is on the same wavelength. “I have no taboos. I’m interested as much in totally innovative modern techniques as I am in understanding why a practice that goes back 500 years has never been bettered. What I want to do, above all, is to bring down the barriers between what is noble and what is considered vulgar and to differentiate myself from conformist and pretentious cooking. You can make something really good with a simply prepared local product, bringing out its inherent taste and nutritional qualities, or with something rare and exotic that needs to be treated in a sophisticated manner. One doesn’t exclude the other. I believe above all in cooking that’s free from complexes,” he concludes.