Sunday, July 27, 2014

Gluten-Free Labeling - yea or nay?

This bread is not gluten free. Nope. Not at all.
There's been a backlash against the gluten-free community lately, particularly regarding the labeling of foodstuffs as gluten-free.

Let's get this straight. I'm not gluten free. I'm more of a gluten glutton, if we're being truthful. But I have friends who are gluten free. Some, because it's life-threatening. So I get it. I sympathize. And I hope I never, ever have that diagnosis.

While the usual grumblings about gluten-free are about the folk who are vaguely gluten free but don't know why, the latest rash of gluten-grumblings has been aimed all over the place. Among other things I've heard lately are:

  • Why are so many products labeled gluten free? Shouldn't it be obvious?
  • Why are so many products labeled gluten free? Those people should read ingredients on the labels!
  • Gluten-free labeling is just a marketing ploy!!!
  • Why do gluten-free oats cost more? It's not fair because I don't need gluten free!
  • Why are there so many gluten-free products taking the space of food I want to eat?
  • Why should restaurants accommodate gluten-free people? Gluten free people should stay home!
  • Gluten-free people shouldn't be eating processed foods and junk food, anyway.
  • Gluten free people should make their own food from scratch so they know every molecule that's in it.

Let me address these one at a time.

Labels? Shouldn't it be obvious?

Well, maybe. But the problem is that many foods suffer from cross contamination. If a factory processes potato chips in the same facility where it makes pita chips, there could be an above-the-limit level of gluten on those potato chips, even though potatoes don't contain gluten.

Those people should read labels!

I'm pretty sure they do, but ingredients listed on the labels only indicate the things that are actually put into the food. The labels might not indicate that the food is processed in a facility that also processes wheat products. Some labels do include allergy warnings, but not all of them do.

Making it obvious that something is indeed gluten free is a convenience for gluten-free people and those who feed them.

Marketing ploy!!!

Marketing! It's my book! On AMAZON!
Yes, I agree. But then again, pretty much everything on a food container is a marketing ploy, from the colors of the labels, to the shape of the container, to the words used. Gluten-free is a big market, and companies are making it clear that they have products for that market.

I mean, why wouldn't they?

There are plenty of items that are labeled fat-free, sugar-free, lower calorie, hormone-free, reduced sodium, antibiotic-free, nitrite-free, or dairy-free. There are companies that put the number of Weight Watcher points on their labels. There are plenty of products that carry symbols indicating that the products are kosher.

We label milk to point out that it's pasteurized (or possibly ultra-pasteurized) and we label foods as organic, cage-free, wild-caught, natural, or free range. We now show the country of origin for meats, and some stores indicate the country of origin for fruits and vegetables. And now, people are asking that foods be labeled to indicate the presence of GMOs.

So, why are some people getting so ... vocal ... about gluten free labeling?

The presence of gluten is a serious issue for people with celiac disease. Which of those other labels carries the same heath impact?

Gluten free costs more!!!

Yes, sometimes gluten-free anything does cost more. In order to keep certain foods gluten free, some companies had to build (or maybe remodel) facilities in order to keep the gluten free processing separate from any gluten-containing products. Depending on what they're processing, that need for separateness might include putting restrictions on their suppliers or shippers, and that might also cost more.

Some gluten-free products shouldn't cost more. If something is naturally gluten free and it's already processed in its own facility, then there shouldn't be an added cost for labeling it gluten free. Unless, of course, the company is paying for certification. But from what I understand, that's not actually required.

So, yes, sometimes it costs more, and there's a reason. Sometimes it costs more because companies are taking advantage of the market.

My space!!! My space!!!

Maybe there are gluten-free products that are taking the place of conventional products. But not always. There are gluten free flours and meals (like rice flour or almond meal, off the top of my head) that are sometimes displayed in a separate gluten-free section, but those have been available for quite some time and they have uses besides gluten-free cooking.

On the other hand, there are gluten-free baked goods and mixes taking up some shelf space that could be used for gluten-laden products. But there are plenty of things in every store that I don't buy. A few more is no big deal.

Gluten free people shouldn't eat out!!!

Um, why? Vegetarians, vegans, and people who keep kosher eat out. People who are allergic to shellfish or peanuts eat out. People who don't like spicy foods, or fast food, or fried foods ... they all eat out.

People who are seriously affected by gluten need to be careful of what they eat and where they eat, but I don't see how having gluten free items in a restaurant harms me in any way. There are plenty of things that are naturally gluten free, like, oh, let's say meat. Or salad (without croutons). Or vegetables. If a restaurant is willing to pay attention to cross contamination to accommodate gluten-free customers, it doesn't affect my dining experience one little bit.

No junk food!

Well, we should all reduce our consumption of junk food, but I'm not perfect. And I doubt my gluten-free friends are perfect either. I see no reason why they shouldn't have safe snacks. Simple as that.

Make everything from scratch!!!

Yeah, right. Remember that part about not being perfect? It would be lovely if every person had the means, motivation, skills, desire ... whatever it takes ... to make their own food from scratch every single day. Maybe there's someone out there who does that right now. But have they always done so? Will they always be able to do so?

While cooking from scratch all the time is a great thing to aspire to, it may not always be practical - or possible. I don't see how it hurts anyone to accommodate the growing population of people who have to - or even want to - eat gluten free.


My gluten-free friends aren't mutant aliens that should be hidden in a closet and not allowed to eat among the rest of us. And, let's face it, sometimes it's just one person in a family who is gluten-free. Should the rest of the family go out to dinner and leave mom at home? Or always leave one kid at home when you go visit relatives during the holidays? Or bring mom or the kid, but don't let them eat anything except some carrots and hummus you brought from home?

This about this: while the folks who are gluten-free tend to know what they can and can't eat, what happens when the gluten-free child is invited to a friend's house for a play date? Should mom trust everyone else to know what's safe to cook? Or should the child never visit anyone else's home?

Heck, what happens if a gluten-free person comes to my house? With as much flour that flies around here, cross-contamination is a real risk. For a dinner event, I'd clean and scrub and de-gluten my kitchen as much as possible to make it safe to grill some meat and roast some vegetables.

But if a neighbor dropped by unexpectedly with a gluten-free friend in tow, I'd be a LOT happier opening a fresh bag of gluten-free corn chips and a couple of containers of gluten-free dips, because I would know for sure that those products were safe. Pretty much anything else in my kitchen might have suffered cross-contamination - and that includes the block of cheese or the home made salsa.

Are you looking for some awesome gluten-free recipes and gluten free blogs? Try these:

Boulder Locavore
Creative Cooking Gluten Free
Gluten Free Baking
Elana's Pantry
Art of Gluten Free Baking
Recipe Renovator
Gluten Free Doctor
Gluten Free Girl
Fearless Dining
The Fit Habit
Liz the Chef
Jeanette's Healthy Living
Erin Brighton