The Lactose Intolerance Clearinghouse Has Moved.

My old website can be found at I am no longer updating the site, so there will be dead links. The static information provided by me is still sound.

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I suffer the universal malady of spam and adbots, so I moderate comments here. That may mean you'll see a long lag before I remember to check the site and approve them. Despite the gap, you'll always get your say. I read every single one, and every legitimate one gets posted.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Free-From Foods Not Free From Salt

Food is great stuff. It's delicious in a thousand different ways, but mostly because humans have adapted over hundreds of thousands of years to the components of foods. This works in two different ways. First, there are the distinct sensations conveyed by our "taste buds." Sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and possibly a fifth sometimes called umami or savory. We're particularly prone to find sweet and salty foods delectable but are likely to be repelled by bitter and sour tastes. Children find the latter especially yucky and this may guide them to sweet and salty foods which they retain a preference for as adults.

We're also adapted to like the taste of fats even more than other components of food, presumably because fats pack more than twice the caloric density of proteins or carbohydrates and that could mean survival in the wild.

Most inhabitants of western countries today find it more than easy to get all the fats they need today just as it's easy to find the once rare and precious sweetener we know as sugar. Most nutritionists will argue that we eat way too much fat and sugar. And salt, for that matter.

So for years food scientists have slaved over their test tubes and test kitchens trying to create food that is fat-free or sugar-free or salt-free or all three that tastes just as good as the originals. Most of the time they fail. "Free from" food as it's sometimes called, more usually in the U.K., has a distressing propensity to taste like cardboard. So the scientists cheat. They'll sometimes load up fat-free foods with sugars just to give our palates something to play with on the way down, for example. Nutritionists tend to go into palpitations at such antics, and for good reason.

Now comes the distressing news that a study of house brands at five British supermarket chains finds them loading up the free from dairy-free or wheat-free foods with tons of extra salt. Salt has the property of enhancing flavor, which is why a pinch - or more - of salt is added to about everything. But this BBC News article reported that the chains go a lot farther than that.

Sainsbury's Free From Jaffa Cakes have 0.67g of salt per 100g, compared with 0.1g of salt per 100g in standard Sainsbury's Jaffa Cakes.

This is more than six times the salt level of the standard version.

Morrison's standard Chocolate Chip Cookies contain 0.5g of salt per 100g, while their Free From version contains 1.5g per 100g - three times as much.

ASDA Free From Double Chocolate Muffins have over three times as much salt as ASDA Double Chocolate Muffins, 1g per 100g as opposed to 0.3g per 100g.

Tesco's Free From Victoria Sponge has more than double the amount of salt as its standard cousin, 1.4g per 100g compared with 0.6g of salt per 100g.

Do free from products need to have this extra salt to taste good? Not necessarily. Each supermarket has some product equivalents with lower salt.

While the impact of salt on health has been hotly disputed of late, "free from" foods should be approximately equivalent to their regular counterparts and there's no good reason to load them up with salt.

Does this mean that I'm recommending yet more ingredients list reading in the supermarket? I'm afraid so. Don't get so happy at finding a dairy-free product that you toss it unthinkingly into your grocery cart. (OK, you can do it once.) Check closely how those canny food scientists are achieving the feat. Dairy-free should never mean unhealthy.

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