Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Wake-Up Call for Gluten Free Ingredients

This past week, those of us who bake and eat gluten free received a wake-up call when it comes to ingredients. Actually, by the time the week was over, we had received THREE wake-up calls: three separate news stories related cautionary tales for those of us who bake and eat gluten free. The first was a report that a virus called “brown streak” is decimating tapioca crops in Africa, and some are likening its potential to the great potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. Most people don’t realize that after rice and wheat, tapioca (also known as cassava, manioc, and yuca) is the largest source of calories in the food supply.

Eight hundred million people in Africa, South America, and Asia rely on it as a food staple. It is also a staple of gluten free flour blends, and the exclusive gluten free flour used by us at Against The Grain. Our tapioca comes from Thailand, where experts think it is highly unlikely the brown steak will spread. However, the virus in Africa has greatly reduced the world supply of tapioca, which is not only used in food and cosmetics, but also in the textile and paper industries. Our tapioca costs have shot up 30% over the past few months. The increased cost of tapioca will also put pressure on other gluten free baked good manufacturers, as well as those selling mixes—not what the consumer wants to hear.

The second wake-up call was the publication of a pilot study by dietician Tricia Thompson, sponsored by Schar, USA and Bia Diagnostics, and published in the June issue of the American Dietetic Association. It looked at the potential for contaminated grains that are normally used in gluten free baking. The results indicated that 32% (or 7 of 22 samples) contained mean gluten levels of greater than 20ppm. The products tested included white rice and flour, brown rice, corn meal, polenta, buckwheat and buckwheat flour, amaranth seed and flour, flax seed, millet grain and flour, sorghum flour, and soy flour.

The authors stress that the sample sizes were not large enough to make any definitive statements about which grains or seeds were more likely to be contaminated, but there were some pretty scary numbers for soy flour. Coincidentally, in our household, we have had some on-and-off reactions to products containing soy. Now, we’re not sure whether it is the soy or contamination or both.

As a gluten free manufacturer, we’re glad we only use tapioca in our products, a starch that is processed totally outside the traditional grain and mill system. But, like everyone else, we are also gluten free consumers, and we buy products containing many other gluten free starches and grains.

The last news story concerned a report (and video footage by CBS) of a makeshift, garage-based milling facility in Iowa that processes gluten free grains. Although the owners maintain that only 1% of their products were processed in that facility, would you want to eat that 1% produced in a facility that had no running water, no hand-wash stations, and no working toilet? Even at a recent outdoor vendor fair in Minneapolis last month, the Minnesota Department of Health required that there be portable hand-wash stations for vendors. I don’t know about the health department in Iowa, but here in Vermont, if we had no running water, we would be shut down in what my mother-in-law used to call “A New York Minute”—that’s faster than fast!

Clearly, gluten free products are coming of age. As more and more industrialized giants enter the fray, I’m afraid we’re only going to hear more reports like these, which aren’t all that unusual in the industrial food chain. As if it isn’t enough that we have to read each and every label thoroughly, we now have to worry about whether the label is accurate as well as the source of the ingredients.

1 comment:

Medifast Program said...

Thanks for some great information, have been reading about this for awhile. Wondered where it was at as far as testing and what they are doing.