THE rise in ‘free-from’ foods is putting profits over principles and can actually be bad for your health, says wellbeing guru Liz Earle

Why do you think there has been such an increase in recent years in the demand for free-from foods?

LOTS of us find ourselves with gut health issues, from occasional bloating to full-blown IBS, acid reflux, colitis and Crohn’s disease. Many of these symptoms are eased by giving up gluten in bread and pasta, or lactose in dairy products, but that is just a temporary fix, not a long-term solution to sorting out why these issues develop in the first place. It’s like taking a painkiller while continuing to hit your head against a wall – to fix the pain, you need to stop banging your head! The same is true with gut health – fix your gut and then you can get back to enjoying pretty much whatever you like to eat.

A rise in food processing and the use of chemical additives (pesticide residues, artificial sweeteners, food dyes etc) has damaged our gut health and increased sensitivities to gluten in bread and pasta, and lactose in dairy products. Eating fewer of the good gut bugs and their friendly fibre naturally present in unprocessed foods has also been compounded by levels of good gut bacteria dropping due to antibiotic overuse. Eating fewer gut-friendly foods, such as high-fibre vegetables and unprocessed cheeses, combined with a steep rise in synthetic chemicals such as aspartame, known to adversely affect the gut (3) have all combined to make us more sensitive to gluten and lactose.”

What do you think the perceived benefits are of free-from foods?

Many of these ‘free-from’ foods go under the guise of being a healthy alternative and somehow better for us, simply because they don’t contain certain ingredients. Their sales are showing a staggering increase. They are often eaten to help calm digestive disorders, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which they can help with – but only as a temporary aid, not a long-term fix.

Are we putting our health at risk with eating a lot of free-from foods?

Excluding major food groups can be risky, especially for women who need plenty of bone-building calcium and vitamin D, most importantly up until the age of 30, the time we more or less stop building bone density. Milk, yoghurt and cheeses are a rich source of both these important nutrients – and so much cheaper and easier to get hold of than artificially fortified plant milks or processed soya products. It would be better to fix a lactose intolerance and get back to enjoying gut-friendly dairy products, with added gut-boosters such as live bio yoghurt and kefir (a kind of liquid super-yoghurt originally from Eastern Europe). With gluten-free products, these are often more highly processed, lower in natural fibre and can include other ingredients to try and recreate texture and flavour, such as hardened palm oils and refined sugars. Studies show going gluten-free can actually increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Are there any downsides to eating a lot of free-from foods?

They tend to be a lot more expensive. And over-processed, with labels such as ‘gluten-free’ giving manufactured foods a faux-healthy credibility. Plus, they can feed into our food paranoia - and don’t actually resolve the original food intolerance issue.

How is the food industry involved?

The rise in ‘free-from’ foods is a marketer’s dream ticket and puts short-term profits over long-term health. We’re seeing entire supermarket aisles taken up with ‘free-from’ food labels as our changing eating habits play into the hands of the big food giants. These manufacturers are hooking us into a reliance on their processed products and moving attention away from improving our gut health, which could actually allow us to eat more freely, healthily – and cheaply – whatever we choose.

What changes do consumers need to make to their lifestyle and diet to end their reliance on free-from foods?

Obviously, there are some medical conditions that preclude eating gluten, such as coeliac disease. This is a true food allergy, not a food intolerance. But if you find you feel bloated or have digestive issues after eating gluten or lactose – and this is something that has developed over recent years – you’re more likely to have a food sensitivity, not a life-threatening allergic reaction. This is something that can be helped by gaining better gut health.

Taking some simple steps, such as eating more plain bio yoghurt can help – as live yoghurt has been shown to reduce lactose sensitivity. You can also try adding more unusual cultured and fermented foods and drinks into your diet. These include kefir, kombucha (a fermented tea drink), sauerkraut and kimchi pickles. It’s also easy to switch to fermented sourdough bread and simply eat more vegetables rich in the prebiotic fibre that feeds our good gut bugs, such as onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, cabbage, squashes, beetroot, turnip and beans. If you’ve taken antibiotics in the past, you may also like to consider taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement too.

Do you have any personal experience of free-from foods?

Yes, both my eldest son and daughter (now in their 20s) have had gluten and lactose sensitivities, and both have been helped by improving their overall gut health and not simply giving up their favourite foods. After a year of focusing on getting her gut health back on track, by switching her eating patterns and taking strong probiotic supplements of beneficial bacteria, my daughter Lily,27 can now even tuck into her favourite Mac ‘n Cheese with no issues.

  • Liz Earle MBE is the founder and editor-in-chief of Liz Earle Wellbeing magazine (, which focuses on food and living well. She is also the bestselling author of over 35 books, a TV presenter, podcaster, business entrepreneur and grass-fed farmer.