Allergy Show my $*@!

Okay, so I’m being a bit facetious. There are some good things about the Allergy & Free From Show – not least that it exists. Plus there were some great keynote speeches (which I’ll post about soon) and fine foodie finds among the cacophony of crap.

It’s the cacophony of crap that concerns me more, though, I’m afraid. It could be my expectations were unduly high. But I had hoped that this would be the one place I might take Sidney and actually feel free to buy him food to eat, safely.

I had visions of a cafe laden with wheat free, egg free, nut free treats – sandwiches made from Dietary Specials bread, maybe (I say DS only because it’s one of the few wheat free brands that doesn’t also contain egg); gluten free pasta with a simple tomato sauce; nut and seed free snack bars. Fruit. Anything. Just somewhere I might actually be able to order lunch and know it had been carefully prepped with allergies in mind.

Fat chance. My irritations are so manifold it’s probably best if I list them:

1. No allergy friendly food in the cafe

Astonishingly, while the hot dishes served up by Leith’s were gluten free, there stood, on the counter, the omnipresent warning: “May contain traces of nuts”. Sandwiches, meanwhile, were bog standard fare – nothing wheat free at all. Pasta and couscous pots were of the non-gluten free variety. Biscuits and snacks either contained nuts and seeds or were made in factories were they were present. And the catering ladies were impeccably trained in the art of not giving a shit. In short, thank god I’d brought (as always) a packed lunch of homemade food for Sidney.

I’ve since been told there have been complaints about this in the past; it’s beyond me why a show supposedly devoted to allergy should offer nothing suitable at the very least for those suffering from the so-called Big 8. I don’t expect pea free, banana free and chickpea free – that would be pushing it. But, for heaven’s sake, try to provide at least one or two things that don’t contain nuts, sesame, egg, dairy or wheat. Never mind soya and the rest.

2. The freebie bag on offer to all vistors…

…contained a sesame-packed bar. Need I say more?

3. The dodgy DIY tests

So what was the biggest and most prominent stand upon entering Olympia? An outfit offering ‘testing’ for a whole catalogue of allergies and intolerances. There isn’t the time or space here to explain the many levels of wrongness, but I refer you to the very experienced and knowledgable health journo Alex Gazzola’s blog here for some of the reasons this offends me so very much. (Not least that if you genuinely suspect an allergy, see a qualified doctor. FFS.)

4. Gluten free rules OK

Now, I have nothing whatsoever against gluten free foods. It is absolutely right, and vital, that Coeliacs are properly catered for and there is a huge market now in pre packed and fresh foods providing for this very important sector.

But it seems to me that ‘gluten free’ has become the easy fallback for ‘free from’. Supermarkets seem to think slapping ‘gluten free’ on a few packs of pasta and some bread covers the allergy issue. It doesn’t. As Saturday’s keynote speaker Dr Adam Fox pointed out, studies from Australia – which are among the most robust to date – suggest 80 per cent of food allergies in children relate to dairy, egg and nuts. Egg is in fact the most common, affecting more than 10 per cent of all kids, followed by peanut at around three per cent. And that’s just accounting for children. So why are these very serious, very prevalent allergies not catered for? A case in point – the M&S ‘free from’ stand had the following sign on prominent display:

It would be funny if it didn’t make me so furious. I could say exactly the same for all the big name supermarkets, who are equally culpable. There’s a whole blog post in me about this issue alone.

The same could be said for very many of the stands. There were some fine and good and dedicated small businesses trying desperately to offer the tastiest possible foods to a gluten free clientele. But more often than not the perky cupcakes and puddings either contained, or had the potential of traces of, nuts. Now I can’t blame the people making these foods but my point is that the organisers should surely have tried to ensure a balance in provision rather than whacking anything without gluten in and ignoring the rest. It was not the Coeliac and Gluten Free Show. The clue should surely be in the name.

(P.S. I might also add that gluten free does not necessarily signify suitable for wheat allergy sufferers: a great many of the foods were gluten free but contained wheat starch)

5. The appalling lack of understanding about cross contamination

One of my fellow Twitterers, the lovely Annie’s Supperclub – a gluten free underground eatery in Kent – pointed out to me yesterday that one of the stands offering curry had a choice: gluten free or normal bread. Yet they were using the same knife in the same butter pot for both.

Elsewhere, nutsome cookies were among the free samples being chopped up and handed out; egg-free cakes sat beside eggless varieties. And that’s before you even attempted to ask exhibitors about the presence of things like nuts in their foods. Some, I hasten to add, were very helpful and very knowledgeable. Others were an absolute disgrace: one woman insisted her cereals were nut free, and 100 per cent free from cross-contamination – until I checked the packaging and found a ‘traces’ warning.

I’m told this happens every year: another fellow Tweeter tells me she once found a milk free chocolate bar for her kids… with a ‘may contain milk’ warning on the label. So it was no surprise to me when I returned on Saturday to spy the following note on exhibitors’ tables:

6. The loose definition of ‘allergy’ and ‘free from’

Vegan does not constitute free from. ‘Free from’ is a term intended to define foods that are free from common allergens and intolerance-causing ingredients. Veganism is a lifestyle choice, not a medical necessity. Veggies, don’t shout at me: I’m a vegetarian. I am a vegetarian by choice. I am happy with my choice but if I accidentally ate a bit of cow I might very well flail about melodramatically but I don’t think I would die. I am also very well catered for, thank you, with the Vegetarian and Vegan Society labelling that exists almost everywhere these days. By all means pop up at a foodie market or a veggie fayre. But your nut and seed and soya-packed foods have no place at an allergy show.

Well, that’s got it out of my system, for now. I’m certainly not suggesting that organisers make the show an allergy free zone – patently that is impossible and impractical and unreal. But pursuing basic standards of care and guidance, providing adequate allergy friendly foods and excluding the free distribution of the most allergenic (i.e. nuts) might be a start.

Next up in a day or two: some of the good stuff about the show, including Dr Adam Fox’s very good keynote speech.

Delicious salmon fishcakes

Egg free, nut free, wheat free, gluten free

These crispy fishcakes can be fashioned purely from salmon or with cod, haddock or whatever combination of flaky fish you fancy. I go for salmon just for a dose of omega-3 (especially given Sidney can’t eat other omega-3 rich stuff like nuts, seeds, beans etcetera).

I make them into flat patties and lightly fry them off for a lovely crispy golden brown coating. The following recipe makes a big batch of around 18 fishcakes, which I freeze for future use.

Basically, they’re another great finger food, delicious eaten hot or cold, and make a good hearty staple for a meal with some veg on the side.

Ingredients

2 fresh (de-boned) salmon fillets (around 460g)

Potatoes (3 or 4 medium-sized)

Whole organic milk

Dove’s Farm gluten free plain white flour

Black pepper to taste

Pure sunflower oil

Unsalted butter

Large saucepan

Frying pan

Bowl

Method

Place the salmon fillets in a single layer in a pan and just about cover them with cold milk. Heat gently and let simmer for 10 minutes, then take off the heat and let cool.

Lift the poached fish out of the saucepan, leaving the milk. Peel off and discard the skin, pop the fish in a bowl and flake it through very carefully with your fingers to ensure there are no bones.

In the meantime, boil the potatoes (around one third to half of the quantity of fish) and then mash using the remaining cooking milk. Add butter and more milk if necessary for nice stiff peaks of mash. Again, leave to cool.

In a bowl, add the potato to the fish and fork through gently, with a sprinkling of black pepper to taste.

Next, form small flattish patties from the mixture with your hands and dust lightly with Dove’s Farm gluten free flour – either sprinkle through a sieve or dip in a bowl of flour. Place in fridge to firm up.

When chilled, pop the fishcakes in a frying pan on a medium heat with enough sunflower oil to cover the bottom. Turn after three or four minutes and cook on both sides until golden. Remove from heat, place on kitchen towel to drain excess oil and serve.

To freeze for future use, fry only until a very pale golden colour, remove from heat, drain on paper then, when cooled, layer on baking paper in a foil tray and freeze. When needed, defrost overnight then fry in sunflower oil until piping hot. Drain, serve, bingo!

Digestives!

WOO! A RARE find: biscuits that have all of Sidney’s allergy bases covered. While scouring the FreeFrom aisle in Waitrose yesterday I came across these newbies (to me, at least): TruFree Digestive Biscuits.

Amazingly, they’re wheat free, gluten free, egg free, dairy free and nut free (though not soya free). I double checked on the nut and dairy thing with the manufacturers, who happen to be part of the Dietary Specials lot.

The biccies are made in a nut free factory although legally, apparently, they can’t describe themselves as ‘nut free’ because they don’t actually test the product for nuts. Ditto they don’t test for dairy so can’t officially lay claim to the statement ‘dairy free’ but there there are no dairy ingredients used in the digestives and no hidden animal by-products – so they’re effectively vegan as well. Sounds good enough for me.

There’s a whole range of allergy friendly biscuits by TruFree, including bourbons, rich teas and custard creams, but check the packets on all before you buy: some may be made in a nut containing facility. There’s an eminently sensible guide on the TruFree website, which states:

We do not claim TruFree products are nut free. However the warnings on pack will vary according to the facilities at the manufacturing site used for that product:

Made in a factory that uses nut ingredients – nuts will be on site and may be used in the same manufacturing line.

May contain traces of nuts – no nuts are used on site but a risk from an ingredient supplier has been identified.

No warning – no risk has been identified at either the manufacturing site or our ingredient suppliers.

So pleased to have found these biscuits. They don’t taste bad, either – a little grittier than your usual digestive and they wouldn’t fool anyone in a blind challenge with a McVitie’s but they’re palatable enough, good dunked in a cuppa and now I can make my easy party special: fridge cake, allergy free and suitable for Sid! Will get going on a batch when I get the chance/can be faffed and post the recipe here…

TruFree Digestive Biscuits, £1.75 a pack, from Waitrose, ASDA, Holland and Barrett, Goodness Foods, Simply Free or online via Dietary Specials here

Top 10 allergy friendly Easter treats for grown-ups

Easter’s not just for children, you know. Here’s our guide to the best freefrom goodies for adults this April…

1. ‘Choices’ dark chocolate egg & fine mints (dairy free, gluten free, wheat free, egg free, vegan)

A dark egg with fine mint chocolates made from 60 per cent cocoa solids. As with their kids’ eggs, makers Celtic won’t promise “nut free” because they can’t rule out airborne contamination throughout the supply chain – but no nuts are used in the factory, staff are banned from eating nuts in the canteen or from bringing nuts on-site and there are even spot checks to ensure the rules aren’t breached. £3.99, Holland & Barrett stores nationwide. Call 0870 606 6606 for details or find your nearest store here.

2. ‘Choices’ chocolate egg & discs (dairy free, gluten free, wheat free, egg free, vegan)

An allergy friendly alternative to the traditional milk choc egg in perky spring packaging, also from freefrom brand Celtic (see above for nut information). £5.49 online from Carrick’s of Penrith

3. Booja Booja Champagne Truffle Easter Egg (dairy free, gluten free, wheat free, egg free, soya free, vegan)

A luxury egg with beautifully hand-painted wrapping and decadent champagne truffles. Every egg bought supports artists and their local communities in Kashmir. Comes in other flavours including sozzled sultana, midnight espresso, stem ginger and hazelnut crunch (clearly not one for the nut allergic). £10 from Goodness Direct and Diverse Hampers

4. Sainsbury’s Freefrom dark chocolate egg & discs (gluten free, wheat free, dairy free, egg free)


A simple but cute egg wrapped up Italian-style in daffodil yellow paper with a moss green ribbon. No nuts in the ingredients. £3.99, selected Sainsbury’s stores

5. Kinnerton plain chocolate egg & bar (dairy free, nut free, wheat free, egg free, gluten free)

The rich, dark Kinnerton classic, backed by its nut-free promise and without dairy, gluten or egg. £5 from Asda and selected Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco stores

6. Waitrose LOVE Life Free From hot cross buns (gluten free, wheat free)

Hot cross buns for Easter.

Buns without the wheat or gluten for hot toasted buttery breakfasts this Easter. Unfortunately, not ones for the egg allergic, I’m afraid. £2.49, Waitrose stores and online

7. Buttons the Easter Bunny (gluten free)

Grown-ups deserve a bit of silly, too – so this luxury choc bunny’s a real treat. Especially because it’s gluten free. No eggs or nuts in the ingredients, but they can’t guarantee no traces. £6.50, Hotel du Chocolat

8. Siesta Carob Easter Egg (dairy free, gluten free, vegetarian)

A simple hollow chocolate egg, made in a nut-free environment (though, again, they ‘cannot guarantee’ no nut traces). £5.36 from Goodness Direct

9. Billy Goat Stuff small solid eggs (dairy free, soya free, nut free, egg free, wheat free, gluten free)

Pretty rose gold foil-wrapped solid eggs made with goat’s milk from Essex-based specialist Billy Goat Stuff. Check out their website for other freefrom half eggs, bunnies, ducks and more. From £1.20-£7.49 , Billy Goat Stuff

10.  ‘Moo Free’ Egg (dairy free, gluten free, casein free, egg free, vegan, wheat free)

A dairy-free ‘milk’ choc egg that’s good for kids and grown-ups. There’s no soya in the ingredients list but there is a ‘may contain traces’ of nuts and soya warning. From £3.79 online at www.ecogreenstore.co.uk and at selected stores nationwide. See here for stockists or contact Moo Free on 0845 094 6498

Top 10 allergy friendly Easter treats for kids

Easter eggs

IT’S that time of year when the shops are packed with perky foil-wrapped bunnies, big-eyed chocolate chicks and row upon row of elaborately wrapped, truffle-stuffed and ribbon-sporting eggs.

But if your child suffers from a food allergy, you’ll know what a minefield Easter can be. You have one of four options:

– go the non-chocolate route and buy them something else instead (good luck with that)

– go the anti-consumerist route and ignore the whole charade (ditto)

– bake the goodies yourself (assuming you have the time)

– go slowly demented desperately trawling the web for something your little ones can eat

So, in a bid to take the stress out of Easter shopping for the allergic one in your life, we bring you this year’s top 10 best Easter goodies for kids (in no particular order). We’d love to know your suggestions, so do drop us a comment if you find any more…

1. Hello Kitty Milk Chocolate Egg & Shopper Bag (nut free & no egg, wheat or gluten in the ingredients)

The perfect girlie treat: a pink Hello Kitty tote and nut-safe egg from kings of the allergy choc, Kinnerton. There are no eggs, gluten or wheat in the ingredients although Kinnerton doesn’t list them as ‘egg, gluten and wheat free’ because they are not tested for cross-contamination. From £4 online at Tesco and Asda. For more details and stockists see Kinnerton’s website.

2. Marvel Heroes 3D Puzzle Tin & Egg (nut free & no egg, wheat or gluten in the ingredients)

A magnetic puzzle game and nut-safe milk chocolate egg for tiny superhero fans everywhere. From £4 online at Tesco. For more details and stockists see Kinnerton’s website.

3. ‘Moo Free’ Egg (dairy free, gluten free, casein free, egg free, vegan, wheat free)

Ideal for the little one with a milk allergy, this dairy free ‘milk’ choc egg tastes pretty darn good, actually (all in the name of research). There’s no soya in the ingredients list but there is a ‘may contain traces’ of nuts and soya warning. From £3.79 online at www.ecogreenstore.co.uk and at selected stores nationwide. See here for stockists or contact Moo Free on 0845 094 6498

4. Bunny Lolly (nut free, and no egg, wheat or gluten in the ingredients)

So many freefrom chocolate goodies are po-faced about packaging – but Kinnerton knows how to make allergy-friendly products fun for kids. If we hadn’t already told you, you’d be none the wiser that these choccie bunnies weren’t ordinary Easter fare. From 54p at selected Co-op stores – click here for details or see Kinnerton’s website.

5. Jelly Mini-Eggs (gluten free, milk free, soya free)

Understated packaging but colourful jolly jelly eggs in apricot, pear, raspberry, orange and pineapple flavours. Does contain wheat glucose syrup, though, so not suitable for most wheat allergy sufferers (unless your doc advises otherwise). Nut traces warning. £3.50 from Waitrose

6. Holland & Barrett White Choc Egg with Buttons (dairy free, gluten free, wheat free, egg free, vegan)

The health food chain has a few allergy-friendly treats this spring but this sports the most kiddie-friendly packaging. This white choc egg and buttons has been shortlisted for the Free From Food Awards 2012. They aren’t labelled as nut free because of the possibility of “airborne contamination throughout the supply chain” but manufacturer Celtic Chocolates don’t use nuts in their factory, or nuts in any of their products, plus staff are prohibited from eating nuts in the canteen or bringing any on-site. £3.49 from Holland & Barrett stores nationwide – click here for details

7. D & D Hollow Chocolate Easter Egg (dairy free, gluten free, wheat free, vegetarian)

Not the most eye-catching box but at least we have a few hopping bunnies and spring butterflies on this dairy-free confection. D & D’s egg has no, um, egg in it either but does contain soya lecithin. There is a ‘nut traces’ warning as nut products are made on-site. £5.36 from Goodness Direct. For more details see D & D’s website.

8. Chocolate Trading Co Milk Chocolate Duck (soya free, egg free, wheat free, gluten free)

This dinky duck choc is made without soya lecithin and hydrogenated fats. No wheat or gluten in the ingredients, although nuts and gluten are used on-site so it “may contain traces”. Also find bunny shapes, dark chocolate varieties and a lovely bright yellow chocolate chick on the website. From £3.95 for a small bunny to £10.95 to a large hen, from the Chocolate Trading Co

9. Billy Goat Stuff Solid Easter Bunny (nut free, soya free, dairy free, egg free, wheat free, gluten free)

Gold foil and pink ribboned Easter bunny in a bag. This small Essex-based supplier uses goat’s milk to create its cute confectionery and was highly commended in the 2010 Free From Food Awards. £2.99 from Billy Goat Stuff online shop

10. Mini Easter Eggs (milk free, soya free, nut free, egg free, gluten free)

Made by Finnish brand Dammenberg, this pack of mini dark choc eggs is a multiple allergy kid’s dream: no eggs, gluten, soya, dairy or nuts. Organic, too. £6 online from Gourmelli UK. For more details contact Gourmelli on 01234 240000.

And… we can’t go without a special mention to Kinnerton for their Peppa Pig, Spongebob and Fireman Sam ranges – and to Tesco for stocking the lot. Hooray.

“So what the hell can he eat?”

As a newbie, relatively speaking, to the allergy kid scene, I’m always grilling the veterans out there on what pre-packaged foods their children can eat.

While every supermarket these days has a Free From section, it ain’t (as I’ve come to realise about everything food allergy related) that simple. Want a wheat free, gluten free, nut free bread? Sure – but it contains egg. Or soya. Or lupin. Or pea.

Want a nut free, dairy free, egg free chocolate? No problem. Only, mind the soya lecithin.

Wheat free breakfast cereal? Great. Just watch out for those traces of nuts and sesame…

Helpfully, fellow blogger Elaine, whose grandson Bob has multiple food allergies, has posted a list of the stuff she and her daughter know to be safe and free from dairy, egg, wheat, gluten and nuts. You can find the whole list here – but bear in mind ingredients can change without warning, so always check, check, check the labels first.

As time goes on I’ll be posting about the products I find to be good, and the places I come across that are fine for allergic folk… like my current number one hotspot, The Grove in Alexandra Palace, London, which you’ll find here.

I’d love to hear about your top food allergy friendly dining experiences, too – so do, please, post when you come across a gem!