As I sat munching on a raw, vegan ‘cheesecake’ (no cheese, no cake) upstairs in the flagship Kensington branch of Whole Foods Market, I reflected that being diagnosed with a food intolerance has meant challenging my other intolerances (prejudices) one by one. There’s no denying the cheesecake was ‘hippy food’, but it was pretty nice in its own right.
We were here for the (free) Gluten Free Store Tour, which I had seen advertised before but had been skeptical about. “Isn’t it just bad store layout if you need a tour?” I had scoffed, forgetting that it has taken me 3 years to get the the point where I can whizz through my supermarket shop, knowing about most of the hidden, naturally gluten free products, as well as those things to beware. The bright and lovely (grain free) tour guide Krystal showed us around the specially produced GF products (many of which were new to me) but also discussed alternative grains, and interesting ways to use fresh produce. A great idea for those newly diagnosed who make up most of her tour groups.
This kind of service is what I hope we will soon see from many of our retailers- in the same way that pharmacists offer smoking cessation advice, I envisage supermarkets offering dietary support and other services around their food as the UK addresses ever more diet-related health complaints. The challenge in implementing this will be where this borders medical advice- there were a few moments where our (geekily well informed) group prickled a little bit when we discussed other intolerances and elimination diets. I think these sorts of services needs to happen in collaboration with our health service and patient groups to make sure people get the right advice. I wasn’t convinced on the advice to soak my grains (or avoid them like a cavelady) but I’m off to read evidence that may change my mind – unfortunately not everyone has the time or will apply a critical eye to the advice WFM give.
WFM is spearheading other trends too. It is a beautiful shop, with exciting and interesting fresh produce. Their core values echo in the themes we have heard Tesco talking about in the wake of ‘May Contain Horse’ – sustainability, provenance of ingredients, and championing local producers. Of course, this comes at a higher cost, and I find it interesting that despite its recent expansion, WFM is still a loss-making operation in the UK. Shopping here is a luxury experience so the recession must have played a role, but I wonder if the UK is really ready for the consequences of a different kind of shopping experience on its food bills?
WFM looks to be doing well from the rapidly growing free from food market, though. As everywhere, this is a mixed blessing for coeliacs. There is lots of choice from well-intentioned and enthusiastic producers keen to serve the growing number of lifestyle GF-ers, but this makes a tricky environment for coeliacs – some product labeling doesn’t quite match up; there is a need for caution on cross-contamination in food service areas; and the ever present need to ask questions to satisfy your own tolerance for contamination risk.
The delightful thing about WFM is that they are only too happy and able to answer them.
If you would like to organise a GF tour of Whole Foods Market – contact them via their website.