‘Free from’ foods can make you fat – think before you eat 8

I recently read, in a not very friendly Daily Telegraph article –  that the ‘free from’ food sales in the UK hit £0.5 billion last year and ‘gluten free’ alone is ‘worth’ £238 million a year. No wonder we are seeing more and more foods hitting the shelves. With a growth of more than 15% in just one year, you can see why the supermarkets have embraced this. Just this month Lidl launched their gluten free range and are no doubt currently analysing a positive impact on their overall sales figures.

The article also pointed out that the main reason for the boom is not likely to be allergy or Coeliac disease but trend. As someone who has to shop in the ‘free from’ food aisle I have never understood why a person would choose to pay £3 for a loaf of bread that tastes pretty rough and has huge holes in it, when you don’t need to.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed the MD of Warburtons, GF brand and asked his thoughts.  He confirmed that a huge portion of the supermarket GF sales must be attributed to trend rather than need as diagnosed Coeliac sufferers get a some of their food on prescription. Also the generally accepted statistic is that only 1% of the population are confirmed sufferers of the disease and so the continually increasing sales must be coming from those who have self diagnosed or those who are trying the ‘diet’ to ease symptoms they think are caused by gluten.

Fair enough – Zac doesn’t have a confirmed diagnosis of Coeliac disease, but he does have non-IgE wheat allergy and has been told by his doctor to avoid wheat, and these figures suggest that there are many others like us. But that still can’t account for the 15% growth of the market in the last 12 months – so perhaps it is trend.

In my opinion, this January has been even more ‘diet’ crazy than ever and you cannot open a newspaper or turn on the TV without happening upon a celebrity or chef or someone who is both – extolling the virtues of  gluten free foods and/or pushing their latest book. A lot of them are coming at it from a ‘clean’ eating approach which is fine. If you want to clean up your diet and eat less dairy and carbs then do just that – don’t eat them. Don’t be fooled into replacing them with ‘free from’ alternatives otherwise you could notice an increase in your weight as well as your weekly food bill.

My personal hunch is that when the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus were first quoted as saying they couldn’t eat bread or pasta because they had to follow a gluten free diet, it was probably because the ‘trend’ for the Atkins diet had just passed and they needed a plausible sounding reason for turning down a sandwich at a party! Going ‘naturally’ gluten free can mean lower carbs and you may lose weight if you are just eating some home made vegetable soup and not dipping in some crusty bread. But for anyone who is new to this and considering just swapping their roll for a GF one, just be careful to read the pack first. You could be swapping in more calories, loads more fat and a ton of sugar.

I belong to a lot of ‘gluten free’ Facebook groups set up by people following GF diets and have read many discussions about weight control issues. From time to time you do see a comment from a ‘lifestyler’ wondering why they haven’t lost any weight yet. Usually they are ‘shot down’ quite quickly by angry Coeliacs or wheat allergy sufferers who point out that they suffer greatly from eating gluten and would never have chosen this ‘lifestyle’ – and weight control should not be a motivator.

It has been reported often, and is highlighted again in this Telegraph article, that supermarket bought Free From Foods are NOT healthier alternatives and that people should be very wary of the fat and sugar content in particular. This is something I pay a great deal of attention to anyway because as Zac is only 6 I am responsible for his diet and like any parent I don’t want my child eating junk. As you can see from the content of this blog, I do work hard at making a lot of food from scratch – but I also allow him treats and try to find ways to make them myself – if I can.

There are several reasons for this – firstly, I like it. Secondly, ‘free from’ foods are wildly overpriced and it makes sense to find ways to trim down your shopping bill. Last of all, I do it because home made rock cakes for example, have about 4 ingredients, but when you pick up a ready made ‘free from’ cake the ingredients list is terrifying and often packed with e numbers.

To illustrate my point I have done a quick stock take of our cupboard and compared Zac’s ‘free from’ foods to our ‘normal’ ones and the results were scary. You expect the cakes to be a bit ‘naughty’ but my biggest shock was the bread.

Zac has packed lunches at school and to add a bit of variety, I recently bought Warburtons ‘Newburn Bakehouse’ sandwich thins. Sophia likes their ‘normal’ ones and it is nice for Zac to have some food that looks a bit like what everyone else has – and he loves them too. They don’t fall apart either which is always a good thing!

The GF thin had 169 calories, 6g fat, 3.8g sugar and 0.44g salt. The ‘normal’ one had 100 calories, 1.1g of fat, 1.9g of sugar and 0.41g salt. The GF thins were of course much more expensive too.

So if I make Zac a ‘sandwich’ using one of these and give Sophia the exact same but in a ‘normal’ thin – he is eating almost twice as many calories, six times the fat and twice as much sugar. Pretty shocking.

The loaves of bread were not much better. I compared a slice of Genius white sandwich loaf to a slice of Warburtons Toastie loaf I picked the small Toastie loaf because the slices are closer in size to the Genius ones than a standard non GF loaf.

The normal bread was 70k cal per slice, 0.5g fat, 13g carbohydrate of which 0.6g sugars and 0.29g salt. The Genius slice has 99 calories, 3g fat, 16g carbohydrate of which 1.6g sugars and 0.25g of salt.

I know that without gluten, you need something else to bind the bread – but do enough of us realise that the manufacturers are using huge amounts of fat to do this and also dumping in very large amounts of sugar. I keep reading about the new ‘war on sugar’ and how hidden sugars are so dangerous and driving the rise in diabetes – but I imagine very few people have been checking their bread ingredients when trying to cut back.

Getting your child’s diet nutritionally balanced is very hard. When your child is dairy free as well as gluten free it is even more tricky. You don’t get a lot of support from doctors and so you just do your best with the foods that are easily available. You hope that by making dinners and treats from scratch you are in control of the sugar and fats, but you just don’t consider how potentially damaging things like ‘free from’ bread can be.

No wonder Zac’s weight has never been ‘low’ – every time I give him a sandwich he is consuming a lot more fat and calories than he would be if he ate normal bread. Really it is a wonder that his weight has stayed in the normal range. I can only attribute it to his lack of other ‘junk’ in his diet, which is partly down to me and probably because he doesn’t really have a sweet tooth and never sits still either.

However, he does have the odd shop bought treat. Often friends and family kindly buy him little ‘free from’ cakes and chocolates so he doesn’t feel left out. I noticed we have a Moo Free chocolate bar in my cupboard so I just compared it to a bar of Galaxy. The Moo Free has 586 calories per 100g and the Galaxy had 546. The Moo Free had 40g of fat, of which saturates 23.6g and the Galaxy had 32g, of which saturates 19.6. The Galaxy was however slightly higher in carbohydrates and sugars. So just a tiny little 20g bar of Moo Free represents a intake of 8 grams of fat and 117 calories – isn’t that far too high for a product directly marketed at children?

Will we soon end up with some data saying that there is a greater incidence of type two diabetes in ‘allergy’ kids? The blame will be put on the parents but shouldn’t we be looking at the manufacturers? As Zac’s mum I can say no to him when he wants chocolate but what can I do when he wants an extra slice of toast in the morning? I have tried making my own gluten free bread and it’s pretty impossible so I have no choice but to buy the fat and sugar laden alternatives.

I plan to keep an eye on this and urge you all to do the same. We are always being told of the importance of mindful eating and I think that is more important than ever for those who have to buy ‘free from’ products.

Warburtons Sandwich Thin

Warburtons Sandwich Thin

Gluten Free Thin

Gluten Free Thin



  1. Free from products contain more simple sugars which set blood sugars on a roller coaster ride and actively cause blood sugar problems in many allergy kids- including my own. (The same is true with elemental formula) They encourage snacking due to blood sugar dips too. I don’t know what the answer is apart from bake your own. Apart from bread all the twins and H’s food is homemade.

    • Thanks for the comment. Your blog post was brilliant. I agree completely. It is very worrying and makes me even more determined than ever to keep making my own and finding ways to keep it as naturally ‘free from’ as possible. Best wishes and thanks for the comment.

  2. Great commentary – I’d never thought to look at the contents of Moo-free as I was just so happy to find chocolate that was both dairy and soya free. Will definitely have to be keeping an eye going forward. I’m another Mum who generally makes as much as possible from scratch and has never yet successfully managed a good safe bread. Fortunately, due to M being sensitive to potato, I’ve not been able to buy him much safe bread as they’re tend to contain potato flour to replace the missing gluten, BUT G does eat Genius bread nearly every day in her packed lunches as it’s the only one she likes the taste of and is more reluctant to eat the rice or corn cakes that M used to have. I also hate that so many GF recipes are laden with sugars, I quickly learned to take a “normal” recipe and tweak it to suit M’s dietary needs. Keep up the good work xxx

  3. I used to think that I was really missing out by not having a big variety of store bought gluten-free snacks to choose from, but now, I’m seriously re-considering! I bake everything myself, because I know what I put into it, and also, there are no preservatives, so my goodies are fresh, tasty, healthier and although they don’t have a long shelf-life, I think I prefer it that way. It’s great that you are so conscientious about what your child eats, and don’t just allow him to go wild with all the options that are available. Thanks for this article.

    • Thanks for the comment. Always good to hear from you. Doing it yourself is certainly the best way. I think the shop bought stuff has to be regarded for ‘treats’ and emergencies only. Like you I think home baked stuff tastes better too. And shelf life doesn’t come into it as they usually get eaten far quicker. I have stuff in my cupboard that has been their ages. I don’t think Zac really likes any of them that much. Yesterday he went and had a look in the cupboard when he was hungry, couldn’t see anything he fancied and ended up going to the fridge for an apple. So I think deep down his own body knows what’s best.

  4. It really is quite shocking. If people don’t need to eat ‘freefrom’ they really shouldn’t because it will probably make them put on weight. I end up eating totally freefrom as processed foods, even freefrom stuff isn’t great and seems to cause mild eczema and nodular prurigo. It should be seen as a treat because most of it is not great on a calorie controlled diet. So I buy meat, fish, veg, fruit and freefrom pastas, quinoa, rice etc. and make most food from scratch. I hate it sometimes as it’s such a drag but if I don’t, my health goes downhill. Some of the ingredients like calcium propionate and xanthan gum aren’t that nice when you read how they are made. Should we be consuming chemicals and additives just to create a sub standard alternative to the real thing? I know some freefrom food is great so I’m not knocking them all but much of it is so sweet and full of fat is described above it should be eaten with caution.

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