Being asked to join the erstwhile panel of judges for the freefrom food awards 2012 was such a privilige for a humble blogger. Having multiple food allergies made the process a little challenging but it was fantastic to sit alongside food writers, bloggers, chefs, dieticians and experts and all share our views on each product.
I judged on two separate occasions and each panel session contained such a diverse group of people. We all came with different tastes, opinions, food experiences, some with allergies, some without, some experts in food and nutrition – together we were able to learn from each other once the tasting and voting was completed.
Some products may have seemed fairly normal, but without our nutritional expert we may not have known that it actually contained an ingredient which made a very useful and healthy addition to the diet of someone who was restricted from eating grains for instance.
Here I am at the tasting table. From left to right, Lesley Cutts from Goodness Direct is hiding behind a chair but she didn’t manage to escape the photograph. Christine Bailey from Advance Nutition looks keen to get cracking and hiding behind Christine is Aurea Conroy from ‘Dublin with food allergies’ blog. Then we’ve got Amy Schaaf the Foods Matter Intern and their regular Facebook and social media expert, Mary Scott Morgan, me and finally Sue Cane making lots of notes already and we’d not even started yet!
What exactly goes on at the freefrom food judging panels?
All the tasting was completely blind. Each product came with a tasting sheet with full ingredients, packaging information and allergens clearly marked, but no brand name or indication of had who made the product. We only saw the packaging afterwards.
The warning “NOT FOR RUTH” was emblazoned on the tasting sheet for any product that wasn’t suitable for me to try. Special thanks to Michelle and Cressida for casting such an eagle eye on minute details of all the product packaging and preparation. Sometimes the ‘not for Ruth’ was purely down to the dreaded, and always rather disappointing, ‘may contain’ labelling. Luckily I could still try quite a few products and commented on the visual look of some that I couldn’t actually taste.
Shhhhhhhh – no comparing ladies!
The process was strict. Michelle (Berridale-Johnson) watching us like a hawk to check we weren’t comparing thoughts, notes etc. It’s really hard to remember that for that hour you have to behave! Not always easy for me! I was so excited by the whole thing I just wanted to say things like, ‘Wow!’ or ‘Ewww!’. Definitely against the rules.
We tasted each product one by one, made our notes, privately and without speaking, until we’d all tasted them. Even a quizzical ‘Mmmmm’ was silenced! And quite rightly so – some of couldn’t help pulling a few involuntary ‘enjoying’, ‘loving’ or ‘not so nice’ faces. It was very hard to remain completely focused and not watch how others were finding each product and to then not be influenced at all in our marking. Sometimes one person would love one product, sneaking back for more, always a tell-tale sign, whilst another hated it.
On more than one occasion heated debates ensued. It was a very lively, challenging and interesting process. I learnt a great deal about food and have also found some new favourites for my larder.
There was a lot of friendly chat and networking between each food tasting, some of us had met before but I also made some new friends and put faces to blogger names like Melanie who had always been ‘Pig in the Kitchen‘ to me until I met her last week. Much nicer to call her Melanie rather than Pig! Lovely to catch up with Lesley, Tanya, Alex and Christine.
Trying to compare products in a category which included quite a few different kinds of foods was really hard. When we were tasting something like pasta it was obviously cooked. We weren’t expected to nibble on a piece of raw pasta! However, the taste will depend greatly on the prowess of the person preparing the food (I must stress, all food was prepared impecably) – was each pasta cooked to perfection, in exactly the same way? Was it cooked how you liked it? It’s all so subjective.
I was mildly concernced when I saw various gluten free flours on the list of foods to taste that I would find myself, teaspoon in hand, about to swallow a dose of flour. Was I cut out for this I thought? How would I be able to tell if each flour was good? I wasn’t a regular dry flour eater! Luckily for me the flour was used to make simple, plain sponge cake – phew!
I felt a bit like I was doing a sight test trying to tell the optician which light was brighter, the green or the red? You think it’s the red, but then you see the next light and decide it might actually have been the green. Could you go back and check? Sometimes I just couldn’t choose. The standard was so very high and so many of the products were really tasty, it was very hard to pick a favourite. If I had been out shopping, tasting them in a supermarket, I would have chosen to buy many of them for very different reasons and uses.
Voting and the shortlist
Once we’d scored each food individually we had to narrow it down to our shortlist. No mean feat. I found this very, very difficult but it had to be done. We were looking not just at taste and the way each product looked but how its ingredients sat together, were they healthy? Was it a useful or innovative product? Was it filling a gap in the market? We scrutinised the labelling, details of which were transcribed onto our tasting notes. Were they useful? Did they explain the usefullness? Was unhelpful may contain labelling used? Was the labelling confusing in any way? Were they making the most of the freefrom benefits with their labelling? Many were not.
I believe each entrant will get the chance to see all our various verbose and detailed comments on their products so hopefully this will both encourage and help them develop their product in the future.
Once our scores were in, and the results totted, we got the chance to pore over the packaging to see whether it lived up to our expectations. All in all a completely engrossing, absorbing and interesting process. Always nice to get invited out for the day when you are a hermit-like writer chained to a desk on your own most days.
Brilliant to be able to analyse labels and ingredients in depth without people thinking I’m paranoid, fussy or a freak! Such a treat to try some amazing new products and make discoveries that will truly change my rather limited and often very dull existence as one of those weirdos who is allergic to everything! I do hope to be invited back next year – if they’ll have me!
That is all I can reveal for now because the life of a freefrom judge is a bit like that of an FBI agent. I can’t tell you because if I did I’d have to kill you. What happened at the freefrom food judging stays at the freefrom food judging. I am keeping schtooom, until the 21st February when the shortlist will be unveiled.
To see some excellent photographs which illustrate the process really well, and read how Michelle Berridale Johnson, organiser and the brains behind the freefrom awards, thought it went this year, read her veview, “Judging the 2012 freefrom food awards fascinating and rewarding”.