‘Free-from’ lifestyle – is it really any better for us?

By | February 18, 2020

Whether it’s gluten- free bread or zero aluminium deodorant, more and more of us are buying into products that promise not to contain certain substances. But is this ‘free-from’ lifestyle really any better for us? A halo effect has developed around certain products – usually purporting to be more ‘natural’ in composition or excluding some out-of-favour chemical – while other ingredients are demonised. But how much of this gulf between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ is real and how much is down to marketing?

oes jumping on the free-from bandwagon come with hidden costs – only in terms of the extra expense in our shopping baskets but also potentially harming, rather than helping, our health? To sort the facts from the fiction and the fear, we spoke to the experts to find out the truth about the biggest free-from fads.

A new Safefood report has revealed that 23pc of Irish people are now buying gluten-free products – but 92pc of those buying do not have a gluten-related disorder. So why do it? The common perception is that gluten-free is not only a healthier way to live but also a viable option for weight loss with some 20pc of people in the Safefood study said they thought they’d drop weight by going gluten-free. Dietitian and founder of eatwell.ie Sarah Keogh wants to set that misperception straight. “Gluten-free is not healthier and it’s a myth that you will lose weight,” she says. “If you genuinely have a medical need for gluten-free products then it’s exactly what you need and it’s fantastic there are so many products available. But if you have no medical need then there are no benefits to gluten-free over ordinary.” The reason some people lose weight when they go gluten-free is because they tend to drop calorie consumption (because they’re excluding foods). It has nothing to do with cutting gluten.

It’s this fact that a gluten-free diet often translates into a restricted diet that poses potential health concerns. “Cutting out gluten will make little or no difference,” says Keogh. “Gluten itself is a protein and you’ll get protein from other sources.” But following an elimination diet (especially without medical guidance) can be problematic. “Many free-from diets can be unhealthy,” reveals Professor Timothy Caulfield, best-selling author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness. “With a gluten-free diet you’re likely to be eating less wholegrains and some observational studies have suggested that the diet can increase the risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease.”

With gluten-free products reported to be on average more than 200pc more expensive than their counterparts, you’re also leaving yourself unnecessarily out of pocket.


Studies show that one in 10 Irish people believes cow’s milk is unhealthy, with 41pc of Irish women and 30pc of Irish men avoiding or limiting dairy consumption.

A frequently cited concern is that there’s a link between dairy and some cancers. “This is not the case,” says Dr David Robert Grimes, cancer researcher and author of The Irrational Ape. “This thinking stems from a very folk understanding of scientific issues, this idea that if I eliminate X – be it dairy, gluten, sugar, meat or whatever – then all will be well, is appealingly simplistic but totally wrong.”

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Keogh refers to the EPIC study which actually revealed lower levels of bowel cancer among those who consumed dairy. “Dairy is a perfectly healthy food,” she says. “If you don’t have an allergy – and only around 8-10pc of people in Ireland are lactose intolerant, and they can still take milk without lactose – then you can potentially be missing out on calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine by removing dairy from your diet.” She adds: “Outside of milk, we don’t have a lot of other sources of iodine in the Irish diet. It’s crucial for brain development during pregnancy and for a healthy thyroid. We’re seeing a lot of issues around iodine deficiency and we’re going to see a lot more.”

If, for reasons relating to animal welfare, you do want to pursue a dairy-free lifestyle then sit down with a registered dietitian and ensure your diet is well balanced and addressing issues like including other sources of iodine such as seaweed.


Every hipster brunch joint now has a menu boasting ‘nitrate free’ bacon – but what does that really mean? Nitrates are used to cure meat and there’s a theory that they could be part of the carcinogenic risk associated with consuming processed meat. First off Keogh says that correlation needs put in perspective. “It was found that people eating 50g of processed meat every day, their whole lives had a slightly higher risk of bowel cancer.” Nitrates may or may not be part of that problem but salt almost certainly is and yet it’s still on the menu. Moreover, some products proclaiming to be ‘nitrate free’ use celery powder to cure the meat – which is also naturally high in nitrates – so the label isn’t wholly accurate.

NON-GMO (genetically modified organism) and ORGANIC

“There is no nutritional difference in eating organic or non-GMO,” says Keogh. “Even from a pesticide point of view, organic does not mean pesticide free, it just means organic pesticides. It is not healthier or better for you.”


In recent years there’s been a worrying trend towards consuming untreated water, with proponents of the craze insisting that we are ‘biologically designed’ to drink unprocessed, spring water and that raw water contains probiotics good for gut health while tap water is ‘contaminated’ with chlorine, fluoride and antibiotics. A similar movement has developed promoting unpasteurised dairy with both trends seen as an extension of the success of the ‘caveman’ paleo diet that promotes following a similar diet to our stoneage ancestors.

“Just because something is in its natural state does not mean that it is always better,” says Caulfield. “Sometimes ‘processing’ is a good thing, especially in the context of public water and pasteurised milk. Indeed clear water (which is the result of human intervention) is probably one of the single greatest achievements in public health. ‘Raw water’ kills about 500,000 people a year.”

“There’s a myth that pasteurisation removes nutrients but it doesn’t,” adds Keogh. “Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria and people can die from drinking unpasteurised dairy.”


Beauty products need to ensure they remain safe and don’t degrade over their expected lifetime.

“For this reason it’s essential that they must contain preservatives otherwise the product could spoil,” explains Laura Waters, Professor of Pharmaceutical Analysis within the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Huddersfield.

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“In the past formulators often used parabens for this purpose and some still do. Then scientific reports emerged that parabens may potentially have unwanted side effects and consumers wanted to avoid them. These have been replaced by similar compounds that are not technically parabens but similar in chemical composition, thus they can claim they are ‘paraben free’ and still preserve the product.” The potential side effects of these alternative preservatives is still an area of research.

Once again it’s largely the C word that’s fuelled the parabens fear. “They are known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and have been shown in very high concentrations to contribute to cancer development in laboratory studies,” explains Dr Tara McMorrow, director of UCD Centre for Toxicology. “However, the levels that are allowed in products by the EU are so low that they don’t show any toxic side-effects and so they are regarded as safe. There are also no studies confirming that they are linked to cancer development in humans.”


Nearly 20 years ago a small study suggested there may be a link between aluminium in deodorant and antiperspirant and breast cancer. All subsequent investigations have dispelled this theory. “Aluminium does not give you cancer,” says Grimes. “Chemophobia is a real thing and zero per cent aluminium products appeal to the nature fallacy that natural is good and manmade is bad. In my opinion, zero aluminium products are mainly a marketing ploy.” “

One old study suggested that aluminium had a link to Alzheimer’s disease but more recent, better studies have confirmed that this is not the case,” adds McMorrow. “The EU conducted an extensive review of aluminium in products in 2018 and confirmed that currently there are no known health risks.”


“Legally they’re terms that mean nothing,” reveals Grimes. “Water is toxic in high enough concentration. There are strong regulations around the concentration of chemicals in products and toxicity so labelling something ‘non toxic’ or ‘natural’ is more about marketing than content, it’s the joy of implication.”

“Chemical free is a phrase championed by the ‘green-washing’ brigade and is a scaremongering tactic used to market products to a vulnerable and under-informed consumer,” agrees Mariga Sheedy of the Hair and Beauty Industry Confederation in Ireland. “If any brand uses the term chemical free you can automatically assume, at best, ignorance of the subject, and at worst utter cynicism in their marketing department.”


“MI/ MIT also known as Methylisothiazolinone is a preservative that has been used in some cosmetic products,” explains McMorrow. “However, recent studies have suggested that it can cause skin sensitivity and allergies in certain individuals, therefore since 2014 it has been banned by the EU for use in leave-on products such as cosmetic creams. However, it can still be used in rinse-off products such as shower gels. If individuals know that they have sensitive skin, then they should check cosmetic products for MI/MIT as this may cause a skin reaction.”

It’s estimated as many as one in 10 people is sensitive or allergic to MI with contact dermatitis a common reaction.

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Palm oil is the fat of the fruit of specific types of palm trees most often found, in its refined form, in confectionary products that contain chocolate or cocoa ingredients. The issues around palm oil are more about environmental, rather than nutrition or health, concerns. “There are ethical concerns around how much deforestation has taken place, especially in Borneo, and how much more is needed worldwide to keep up with demand,” explains Kelli Marjolet, founder of the Proper Chocolate Company, one of just six craft bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Ireland and passionate about the use of sustainable, ethical ingredients. But as well as that, Marjolet says consumers should be aware of what palm oil means for the product they are consuming. “Health wise, unrefined palm oil (49pc saturated fats) is preferable to refined palm oil which can reach up to 90pc saturated fats,” she explains.


“Sulphates in shampoos are the main cleaning agent, they form the foam that cleans the hair, removing dirt and excess oil,” explains McMorrow.

“It’s not necessary to buy sulphate-free shampoo unless you have dry and brittle hair, as sulphate-free shampoos are slightly milder on damaged hair but don’t clean as well. There has been a lot of misinformation about sulphates in the media, however, they have been extensively tested and have been found to be very safe. Some studies have shown very mild eye irritation with excessive use of sulphate shampoos, but no other concerns have been identified.

Why do we need to know what ‘free-from’ means?

⬤ “As consumers we need to get a lot better at critical thinking,” says Grimes. It’s clear many of us are falling for overly simple free-from messaging that’s often more about marketing than genuine health or environmental issues. The rise of chemophobia poses cause for concern. “People want to avoid ‘chemicals’ but the entire planet, including you and me, is made up of chemicals,” explains Caulfield. “Many ‘natural’ chemicals are harmful and many synthetic ones are perfectly safe.” Apples contain arsenic and yet there’s no health scare around eating the fruit. When we’re considering any chemical and its possible effects, it’s concentration and context that matter more than the chemical name.

⬤ We also need to be more cautious about the current appetite for deifying certain foods and demonising others. “There is so much noise in the nutrition space right now that it has become increasingly difficult to know what is real science and what is bunk,” says Caulfield. “For me, one of the biggest concerns is that all this noise distracts us from focusing on the simple, science-informed things that we should do: don’t smoke, exercise, eat real food, maintain a healthy weight, sleep and have good relationships and community connections.”

⬤ Keogh agrees. “I find it interesting that people will talk about wanting to cut out dairy or gluten but when it comes to alcohol consumption – which we have an unhealthy relationship with in Ireland – they don’t want to know. To my mind we’re focusing on the wrong things.”

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