Free-from indulgent Christmas foods that aren’t free from flavour

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10 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
Christmas dinner

Christmas is the most indulgent time of year, full of treats and delicious food.
For people living with food allergies and intolerances though, or those looking for lighter and healthier alternatives, Christmas dinner isn’t always easy to navigate. Thankfully, recent developments in the free-from food sector have brought to the market a huge selection of festive foods that are just as indulgent as their traditional equivalents.

In recent years consumer demand for free-from products has increased significantly. This is partially due to the growing number of people living with food allergies and intolerances. According to the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, there are at least 2 million people who have a diagnosed food allergy in the UK. Globally, allergies and intolerances are common in children from developed and developing countries.

A recent report from US National Institutes of Health (NIH) also showed that approximately 65% of people worldwide cannot digest lactose properly, which explains the influx in demand for plant-based dairy products.

With the introduction of Natasha’s law in October, the Food Standards Agency has helped food businesses make the changes necessary to provide guidance people living with food allergies. The 14 common allergens which must now be included on labels in the UK are celery, gluten, crustaceans and molluscs, fish, eggs, lupin, milk, mustard, tree nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, soybeans and sulphur dioxide and sulphites. Reactions to these allergens vary from person to person, and its severity can range from a small irritation to anaphylaxis, which is often life-threatening. Tree nut allergies can be some of the most severe, with around 50% of anaphylaxis-related deaths being caused by them. These are followed by soy and fish allergies, which can cause potentially fatal reactions.

Intolerances can also cause great discomfort for people eating the wrong foods such as gluten and lactose, and can cause bloating, nausea, flatulence, and indigestion. Food allergies however are not solely limited to these foods and make developments in the free-from market all the more needed. 

Many consumers have also become more health conscious since the start of the pandemic last year, developing a greater interest in their immune health and nutritional health. Consequently, more people are looking to opt for a healthier, but still indulgent, Christmas, by choosing foods lower in salt, sugar and fat. According to this year’s UK Free-From Foods Market from Mintel, sales growth in the market rose by 16.9% in 2020. It has reached £652M in sales overall and £455M in the dairy and lactose-free specific market. So, if you or your loved ones suffer from allergies or intolerances, or you simply want a lighter Christmas, you’ll be glad to know there is plenty of choice of festive free-from food, from appetisers to desserts.

The Appetisers

No two Christmas appetisers are the same. They can vary from mac and cheese bites and bowls of crisps with dips to salmon and cream cheese canapés. What many of them do tend to have in common however are gluten and wheat, which can be found in the regular-featuring crackers or toasted breads in canapés, the breadcrumb coating of the mac and cheese, and added seasonings to crisps.

The Free-From Christmas Awards for 2021 named Tesco Free From as having the best Christmas range on the UK market right now. Within their festive selection are a wide range of nibbles including their Turkey & Stuffing Tortilla Chips, Maple & Bacon Tortilla Rolls and Pig In Blankets Popped Chips, which are all gluten and wheat free.

Other big food retailers who came out well in the 2021 Free-From awards for free-from party foods include Asda, who’ve recently launched their Gluten Free From Christmas Party Food Platter, which features Moroccan Style Spiced Cauliflower Bites, Red Pepper & Herb Arancini, Breaded Mushrooms and Cheddar bites.

The Drinks

Drinking has played a major role in Christmas meals for centuries. From eggnog to mulled wine and cider, classic Christmas drinks regularly include generous alcohol content. In more recent years, studies have found alcohol consumption to generally be at its highest levels in the western world during the Christmas and New Year holiday celebrations.

Since the start of the pandemic, the consumer demand for the low or no-alcohol drinks market has soared, and it is expected to continue, being predicted to see a 31% increase in sales by 2024 according to the IWSR. The Whole Foods Markets Trends Council’s recent report has also predicted low alcohol and no alcohol spirits to be one of the leading trends for 2022.

The demand for drinks that are lower in sugar and calories, which don’t come with an added headache the next day, are now bigger than ever. As a result, the variety and quality of non-alcoholic drinks has vastly improved. An IWSC (International Wine and Spirit Competition) award-winning brand is CleanCo. The company offers zero-sugar, non-alcoholic versions of spiced rum – Clean R – which can be used to make a healthier version of a hot toddy, and gin – Clean G – to switch up a conventional G&T. The company was founded by ex-Made in Chelsea star Spencer Matthews in 2019 in an attempt to make non-alcoholic drinking both a healthier and more attractive option for consumers.  

Three Spirit Drinks, winners of the bronze award for Food Matters Live Future Brand of the year 2021, offer a selection of booze-free beverages to suit different moods and social settings. Created by bartenders and plant scientists, the drinks include function ingredients which aim to satisfy your needs, whether it be for a nightcap, a social gathering, or as an energiser.

Thomson & Scott Noughty also produces an alcohol-free sparkling chardonnay, which is vegan and halal. The brand was founded by Amanda Thomson in 2019, who was formerly an Arts Broadcaster for the BBC. After moving to Paris with her family, she moved into the food and drinks industry, studying for a Diploma in Wine at the Le Cordon Bleu School, which led to her being appointed as the Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017. The product is made with organic grapes, grown using minimal intervention in harvesting and production. It is also low in sugar, containing 2.9g per 100ml, which the brand says is half the amount normally found in sparkling wines. Consequently, it is low-calorie too, coming out at 14 calories per flute.

The Starter

Christmas is a time for getting people together, so sharing platters are very popular. Meat and cheese boards are a regularly sought-after option as they are easy to put together and can feed a decent number. However, these aren’t always suitable for people who need to limit their consumption of fatty and salty foods.

Some healthier low-fat options for sharing that still offer satisfaction include the cheese bake from Eatlean. A spokesperson from the company notes: “[The bake] is made exactly the same way as other cheese bakes, but using Eatlean cheese which has 90% of the fat taken out (therefore fewer calories) means you can have a cheese bake with these outstanding nutritionals.” The company’s Business Unit Director Barrie Saxby spoke at the November 2021 Food Matters Live event, in the ‘Reformulation forum: nutrient profile innovation and improvement’ webinar as part of the series on ‘Reducing obesity: policy and practice’.

A classic charcuterie board of sliced meats is another favourite food party piece. Cured and flavoured meats however tend to have some of the highest sodium levels out of all meat goods. Nevertheless, low sodium sliced meats are starting to appear on the British food market. Houghton Hams, a family run business from Northamptonshire, produce a reduced salt cured ham for instance, a perfect addition to a sharing platter.

The Italian cured meat brand Fratelli Beretta makes a low-sodium product range called Mount Olive, which launched in 2017 in the US. The line features cold cuts including prosciutto, Milano salami and coppa, which have nearly 50% less salt than regular cured meats on the market, by not having any added nitrites or nitrates, which are commonly added to cured meats in the production process.

The Main Course

Despite meat often making up a major part of the Christmas main course, whether it be turkey, chicken, fish or ham, for some people meat dishes aren’t a recommended option.

For people living with Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS, also known as alpha-gal allergy, red meat allergy, or tick bite meat allergy), eating red meat results in reactions including angioedema (tissue swelling), stomach cramps, vomiting, headaches and rashes, and in rare cases, anaphylaxis. Poultry and pork allergies also exist, and according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (ACCAI), even though meat allergies are relatively uncommon, if you become allergic to one meat type, you may develop reactions to others too.

A nutritious option for people with meat and fish allergies is the Terra Vegane Organic Vegan Roast. As well as being meat-free, it is also free of crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, mollusc, sesame seeds and sulphites. It is also low in sugar and still high in protein. The protein-based roast mix is made from lentils, oats, buckwheat and wheat protein.

Pre-prepared roasted dishes and turkey can still sometimes contain common allergens such as gluten, milk and eggs in the trimmings, such as the stuffing mix and gravy. Retailers however offer gluten-free stuffing in their pre-prepared turkeys. Aldi’s British Free Range Roly Poly Turkey Crown for instance includes a pork, cranberry and apple stuffing which is safe for people with coeliac disease. The product won a silver medal in the Christmas Dinner category at the 2021 Free-From awards.

Bay’s Kitchen’s Thyme & Chives Vegetable Gravy offers an alternative gravy option for people with coeliac disease, as well as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The brand was founded in 2016 by Bay Burdett who was diagnosed with the disease in 2015. The company specialises in creating IBS friendly foods that follow the Low FODMAP diet (Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, which are found in foods with short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols). The gravy has a low FODMAP rating by being free from onion and garlic, which are known to be trigger foods for people living with the disease.

The Dessert

The definition of indulgence at Christmas is seen the most in the dessert options at dinner, with dishes often being a very sweet and alcohol-fuelled affair. Traditional festive desserts also tend to regularly feature several common allergens, as well as high-calorie ingredients. Conventional Christmas pudding and cake on the market for instance often includes nuts, milk, eggs and gluten, as well as a lot of sugar, brandy or whisky.

Allergen-free alternatives to a boozy Christmas pudding include the Matthew Walker alcohol and nut-free Christmas pudding. The company also offers a solely alcohol-free and gluten-free version of the pudding. Founded in 1899, Matthew Walker, which is now owned by Northern Foods, is one of the oldest producers of Christmas puddings worldwide. 

Bringing healthier sweet treats to the market is the prime goal of South-East London-based company Nummy, who were founded in 2019 by Aggy and her partner Peter. All their sweet treats are handmade using natural products, and are free of flour, refined sugar, dairy, and egg. For Christmas, the company produces lighter versions of mince pies and snowman doughnuts which are baked instead of fried.

Chocolate, a very common feature in the Christmas stocking, can be packed with sugar, as well as containing milk and soy. Plant-based Pure Heavenly chocolate offers a healthier free-from alterntive in a variety of delicious flavours with less than 1% sugar. It is also dairy, gluten, soy and palm oil-free, making it not just ideal for those with allergies and intolerances, but also for ethical consumers.

The market of free-from foods for the festive season is larger than ever right now. With the increase in production of new and improved free-from products that strive to meet this greater demand comes a greater variety. People living with food allergies as well as those who require better-for-you options no longer have to scavenge in the deepest depths of the supermarket aisles to find a safe or healthier feast. They can now properly indulge at Christmas just like everyone else – with all the trimmings included.

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