What menu items are gluten and dairy free? A chef might once have been surprised to hear such a question but it’s now common for customers to request food that caters for their allergies and intolerances. The food industry has had to change to accommodate them.
According to research carried out by Bord Bia in 2017, 20% of people in Ireland regularly shop for gluten free products. This is despite the fact that only 1% has been medically diagnosed with coeliac disease (which means they lack the ability to break down the protein found in wheat, barley and rye).
“The majority of Irish people following a gluten free diet are not diagnosed as coeliac or have any intolerance to wheat,” says Paula Donoghue of Bord Bia. “They perceive gluten free to be a healthier choice.”
It is this that has driven a double-digit growth in the gluten free market, making it worth €66m in 2016. It’s also what has given rise to the FreeFrom Food Awards, which were first held in Ireland in 2016. By 2017, these awards covered 44 categories, 101 brands and a total of 583 products.
Virginia O’Gara is the co-founder of Cork’s My Goodness Foods, a business that makes vegan, raw, gluten free, sugar free, dairy free products as well as fermented probiotic foods.
Originally from Dallas in Texas, Virginia has seen attitudes towards these foods change drastically since she moved to Ireland. She had been vegan since the age of 16 and came to study permaculture in Kinsale in 2006. “There weren’t very many options for me then,” she says. “In many ways, I was the only vegan in the village.”
She met her now husband Donal O’Gara while studying and they decided to set up My Goodness Food together in 2014. “We were offered the second floor of a community centre that also housed a gay disco, a youth outreach centre and yoga classes,” says Virginia. “When my dad heard that we were thinking of opening a raw vegan café upstairs in a gay disco, his first reaction was to urge me to give up on my crazy ideas and come back to Texas.”
Despite her father’s doubts, the café was a success. “During that first six months, we were even championed by Martin Shanahan on RTE’s Taste of Success for our kefir [a fermented drink],” says Virginia.
A fire in the building ended that chapter in My Goodness Food’s story. “We had to pack up,” says Virginia. “We were working out of our house kitchen for a while and doing stalls in various farmers’ markets in Cork. Then we finally got a new kitchen production unit where we were able to ramp up our production of our water kefir and kombucha [another fermented drink made from tea].”
Virginia’s ethics extend to the waste produced by her business. “We use glass jars and minimal packaging for our products,” she says. “We also use every scrap of food for things like bouillons and sauerkraut. Everything else gets composted and we only put a rubbish bin out for collection every six months or so.”
In the four years since they started, My Goodness Food has grown from a two person operation to a business that employs ten people. Every product is made by hand and sold from stalls at farmers’ markets in Coal Quay, Douglas, Wilton and Mahon in Cork. They were also recently invited to set up a permanent stall in the English Market.
“We’re right there in the middle of the butchers,” says Virginia. “A lot of people laughed at us at first but now a lot of the other stallholders come to us for their lunch.”
It’s customers’ willingness to try something new that has been at the heart of My Goodness Food’s success. “We have always had a great response from our Cork customers,” says Virginia. “They have been happy to have a healthy and fresh option.”
She and Donal have never tried to mimic meat. “We try to change people’s approach to vegetables by creating new dishes,” she says.
Looking to the future, Virginia and Donal intend to distribute their kefir, kombucha and range of sauerkraut nationwide. They are also planning to develop and distribute their range of raw cakes.
She thinks the vegan market is set to grow and grow. “Things have changed so much since I arrived in Ireland,” she says. “Now even Centra has a vegan option. Before, people were annoyed if you said you were vegan but now it challenges people to be creative and to make something new.”
She also believes the success of businesses such as hers will encourage others to cater to vegans. “I’ve seen it with our stalls,” she says.
“Businesses around us have seen how popular our food is and they have started offering their own vegan options. I think that’s great. I want all businesses to be vegan businesses.”