Three years ago I was diagnosed with coeliac disease.
Genetically inherited, it comes from the body’s adverse reaction to gluten.
The disease is actually a lot more widespread in Australia than many people realise.
The only answer is to stop eating anything containing gluten, including wheat, rye, barley and oats. To ignore the edict from doctors is to risk all sorts of nasties including diabetes, liver problems, skin conditions, osteoporosis, depression, and intestinal cancers.
The diagnosis involved a huge shift in thinking about food.
I grew up with a Dutch father who still remembered the “hunger winter” in the last year of the war in Holland. Not only did that mean eating everything on your plate (or else), it meant that rejecting any food offered to you was the height of rudeness.
But the diagnosis opened up a whole new world of interest in food and food labelling.
A few things were clear.
Fortunately, the rest of the world was not as intolerant as I had been about “picky eaters” and had become a lot more attuned to producing food for people with specific needs.
But it also highlighted what opportunities there are for Australian companies in the specialist food manufacturing areas.
Suddenly I had to become an expert on food labelling. (Coeliac Australia has a handy app for the phone to help work out which foods have gluten and now has an even newer one to help scan bar codes of food products for their content.)
As someone with a “health issue” that could ultimately lead to death (nothing like having an incentive there), I was also prepared to pay more for foods that were gluten free.
I began to discover a world of new food brands and companies I had never heard of.
Small companies such as Carolyn Creswell’s Carman’s and Green’s make food for the gluten free eater. (Green’s Basco brand boasts “we believe that gluten free foods should be great tasting”.)
Supermarket chain Coles, whose chief executive John Durkan is speaking at today’s Global Food Forum hosted by The Australian in Melbourne, has been one of the leaders in catering to gluten-free eaters.
It has teamed up with Coeliac Australia to give members a small discount on its gluten-free items.
But in the three years I have been paying attention, the gluten-free sections of all the supermarkets have expanded considerably.
It’s not just being coeliac. Many people who are not coeliac are finding they have varying degrees of gluten intolerance. There are many others with other food issues now being identified.
In the US alone the market for gluten-free products is estimated to jump from about $US4.2 billion in 2012 to $US6.7bn ($8.8bn) by 2017. The number of products claiming to be gluten-free is also skyrocketing.
While people may shop around for cheap food products, there is a growing worldwide market of people who are prepared to pay more to know exactly what is in their food and where it comes from — as the recent scare over frozen berries processed in China highlights.
Australia produces large quantities of high-quality food, but we live in a high-cost environment. To survive in a globally competitive world, we also need to look to Singapore’s example of pushing ourselves further and further up the value-added chain.
We need to take advantage of the fact that we have higher labelling standards, and higher health and production standards than many of our Asian neighbours.
The collapse in world iron ore prices has highlighted Australia’s vulnerability in relying on commodities.
The food industry provides an opportunity to turn price-taking “commodities” into trusted branded products.
Another speaker at today’s conference, Chia Company founder John Foss, has built a business on this premise.
Foss came from a family of West Australian wheat farmers. He grew up all too aware of the problems facing wheat farmers and their vulnerabilities to the swings in world commodity prices and began looking at alternatives. Travelling the world on a Nuffield Scholarship, he realised there was a growing market for “healthier” foods and foods where the buyer could be assured of its origins.
Foss began just over a decade ago by selling chia grown largely in the Ord River area. But while demand for chia is growing (the seeds are both gluten and dairy-free), they are also produced in low-cost countries in Central and South America.
Foss moved up the value chain by putting his chia in distinctive orange packaging. He has since moved further up the value chain, producing Chia Company breakfast foods in plastic packages called Chia Pods.
Now based in New York, he sells his products into US chains such as Whole Foods Market and Costco. Foss’s story is a great example of what can be done.
It can be easy to dismiss what might appear to be “food fads” — until you get some first-hand knowledge. The future, and the opportunity, for Australia agriculture will be turning commodities into trusted brands