Free From Awards Founder, Michelle Berriedale-Johnson
On a wet and windy evening in late January, the legendary Michelle Berriedale-Johnson kindly invited me into her lovely Hampstead home to discuss her website, Foods Matter and her very successful annual Free-from Awards. Fresh from a day’s judging in anticipation of 2014’s awards, Michelle’s passion for food and insight of all things free-from shone through.
What began your interest in food allergies, intolerances and everything free-from?
Back in the late 1980’s my partner took the Vega testto try to find the trigger for certain allergic reactions he was having. The test is still around now and although it is frowned upon by conventional allergists, it did identify an intolerance to dairy products. Around the same time, my small son was suffering from eczma. I had read about a potential link between eczma and dairy consumption so we decided to experiment and cut dairy out of both my son and his father’s diets; lo and behold, the reactions ceased for both of them. Back then there wasn’t a wealth of information out there for people with food allergies, and if you had one generally you’d suffer in silence and just made all your own food.
So you identified a gap in the market?
Any dairy-free alternatives were few and far between and those that were available weren’t generally up to much. We started producing a soya based ice-cream, and then ready meals that were free-from gluten, dairy and egg. Dairy-free chocolate followed soon after. We did manage to get these products into the supermarkets and sold them for about 4 years, but they didn’t sell as well as they would have now, so we started to explore other avenues producing a quarterly magazine for those working in food and catering, hoping to educate them on food intolerances.
Did you have any more success with the magazine than you had had with the products?
We certainly did. At one point we had 36,000 subscribers. But it was decided that the free-from community would be better served if this magazine was also aimed those with allergies. At this point it was renamed as Foods Matter.
So if that was the start of Foods Matter, how did the awards themselves begin?
I’d get friends over to rate certain products based on various criteria and we’d include a table in the magazine, which was particularly popular, and useful for practitioners. Around the turn of the millennium when the internet was taking off, we decided to make it into a website, in place of the magazine. This increased both the range and reach of viewers and coincided with a rise in interest in all things free-from as people have begun to take more care of what they eat. About 8 years ago, due to the growing interest in the site it was suggested we began a set of awards for the best free-from foods available. We used the table from the magazine as a basis for the awards.
And how have the awards progressed during these 8 years?
For the first awards ceremony Anthony Worrall Thompson kindly let us hold it in his then restaurant in Notting Hill, and agreed to present the awards. The awards have since gone from strength to strength and there are various reasons for this; they raise awareness of food allergies, encourage innovation and improve the quality of the products available. The presentation is also a great networking event for those in the industry; judges come from a range of backgrounds and include people working in the food industry, food scientists, journalists, dieticians, nutritionalists and laymen.
And you’re actually judging at the moment are you not?
Yes – for the awards themselves we spend two weeks at the beginning of the year judging before shortlisting. This year our presentation party is on March 25th. Our attendees range from smaller, independently run establishments to big supermarket chains. Once we announce the winners, we have a tasting buffet of all of the winning products.
Your logo seems to be becoming more and more sought after!
The logo has become very sought after and it’s really a win-win situation for all involved: good for the winners as it promotes their products and good for the consumer as it encourages quality products.
And do you have any international interest in Foods Matter?
A large percentage of our website hits come from the US and Italy, and we have great feedback from people overseas.
How do you foresee the industry continuing to progress over the next few years?
Until recently, as is often the case, the catering industry has lagged behind the retail industry, but as the free-from community are becoming more vocal and the EU allergen regulations come into effect in December 2014 (caterers will have to be able to provide information on 14 allergens), the catering freefrom offer will improve. The food service industry is finally taking notice and but there is a lot of work to be done. People like Leons are there already many of the independent caterers, who make up around 70% of the industry, really do not have much clue about allergens. From an awards perspective, this year we are introducing the free-from eating out awards to raise awareness and hopefully shape free-from eating out, both in the kitchen and front of house.
Finally, as someone who grew up in Chorleywood, I notice when the Chorleywood bread baking method is discussed, and have heard the theory that this may be linked to growing allergies to wheat and/or gluten. What are your thoughts on this?
Well the Chorleywood method of baking bread was introduced to maximise profits and as such bread was produced faster. Previously, yeast had been allowed to prove naturally and break down fully, to the extent that the bacterial action changed. The Chorleywood method increases yeast and adds enzymes to speed up the process. I’m not sure that the gluten is given the chance to break down, and whether the yeast finishes proving or carries on in your gut after digestion. I see a lot of people going to eat sourdough as a replacement for regular bread.
Thanks for your time Michelle, and happy judging!
The 2014 Free From Awards winners have been announced. Please visit http://www.freefromfoodawards.co.uk/winners-14/winners_all.html to see who won!