Friday, December 10, 2010

Gluten-Free Shopping, Mainstream Brands

So we went shopping yesterday.  Yes, while I have concerns about their employee treatment, I am forced by finances to do most of my shopping at Waldemort (the store that shall not be named).  We had to stop and read a lot of labels, but between that and Internet shopping I found some surprising things about how many mainstream brands are adapting to their market by having clear gluten-labeling policies!  Here's a few things I found out:

Walmart brands are very, very good about labeling.  Anything that may contain allergens is clearly labeled including potential cross-contamination ("processed in a facility that also processes wheat") but anything they are actually confident calling gluten-free is also labeled.  Look for "A Gluten-Free Food" or "Naturally Gluten-Free" on the label.   Even most of their vitamins are labeled, but you have to call and check on each batch of multivitamins.  It might be worth it since JD just shelled out $50 for two months worth of specialty gluten-free multivitamins from the health store.  Apparently they taste like something not-so-recently dead :-)

I was surprised by dairy (which might make a good band name).  None of the regular gallons of milk were actually labeled gluten-free.  The only one labeled such was the cardboard half-gallon of Walmart brand organic milk.  While it might be safe anyway, we're being extra paranoid for the first year so that we don't interrupt his healing process.  So while I need milk for baking, etc. we might re-think breakfast cereal if we have to pay $7 a gallon for something labeled gluten-free.  Cottage and ricotta cheeses, ice cream and block cheeses were also an issue.  Nada on the cottage and ricotta.  We found one local Michigan cheese maker who labeled their block cheese, but had to get the pre-shredded mozzarella (which, oddly, WAS labeled gluten-free, even though you'd think they came from the same manufacturer as the block cheese).  Ben and Jerry's was the only ice cream labeled, but too expensive.  So we're putting the ice-cream maker back into use. 

We were also blocked on the "super-extra paranoid" front in the meat department.  You'd think meat was meat, but every packaged cut on the shelf had a tiny fine-print label that says "Contains up to an 8% solution or marinade to maintain freshness".  There's no info on what's in the marinade, but most stock bases have gluten.  So no roast or steaks.  I got hamburger instead, which was labeled gluten free.  Sausage is a hopeless minefield and I might just look for an actual butcher who can make it to specifications. 

Ditto on nuts, as every package of nuts in any form, anywhere in the store had a "processed in a facility that also processes wheat" warning.  Maybe I can talk my parents into bringing me Georgia pecans for Christmas. 

The joy of the day was in Internet research!  The best way to know if you can trust a label is to see if they have a specific gluten-labelling policy on their website.  Google the manufacturer and look for a FAQ, a health and safety section, an allergen section, etc.  If in doubt, e-mail them and if they're confident in their labeling they'll tell you.  If you get a "we cannot guarantee" or "ingredients change in each batch" or "may have been processed in the same facility" legalese, you can't trust them unless your gluten sensitivity is very light.

But there are a few brands that are going out of their way to compete for the business of the 3 million Celiac sufferers in the U.S.!  This info is as of December 2010, but remember that these policies DO change without warning, so check the websites regularly for updates.  I should note that I'm not receiving any benefit from any of these companies, they're just brands I looked at specifically when grocery shopping. 

Kraft Foods: 
Rating: Good-job-keep-going

Their website states:

"The ingredient information on labels of Kraft products is very specific to help you make accurate and informed choices. If a Kraft product has an ingredient that is a source of gluten, the specific grain will be listed in the ingredient statement, no matter how small the amount. For labeling purposes, Kraft products will always state the names ‘wheat, barley, rye and/or oats’ when they are added to a product either directly as an ingredient or as part of an ingredient. "

This means that if they use modified food starch from a gluten product, they will label "modified food starch (wheat)," for example.  The problem with this may be psychological.  They are making the assertion that if a wheat, barley, rye or oat product is not clearly listed on the label, it isn't there.  I don't think that's good enough.  If they suddenly changed their policy, the consumer would never know unless they regularly visited the website.  I think it's awesome that they're taking the extra step, but one more (actually labeling products "Gluten Free" if they are) would cinch my business at least.  In the initial extra-careful first year, we can't take a chance.  Sorry Kraft.  I hope to use your products again someday.
Rating: Good-job-keep-going
They are making efforts to test and certify foods as gluten-free and maintain an extensive list of gluten-free foods on their website:
Unfortunately, when I checked the list against their products in-store, the items were not specifically labeled gluten-free and the ingredients lists include the suspect keywords, like "modified food starch" and "natural flavors" that make it way too risky to buy.  Plus, since they rely on a published list instead of labeling each batch of product, it could legally change at any time without warning.  I would love to go back to Swanson broths for my soup bases, but until they take that extra step of saying "gluten-free" on the label, I'll have to make do with something else.
Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing
Rating:  FAIL!
Is actually made by Clorox...who knew?  Anyway the labeling is unclear, the website only goes so far as to say they comply with the federal law which makes them list the top 8 allergens (of which wheat is one, but barley, rye, oats and gluten are NOT required disclosures).  They did not respond to an e-mail asking for clarification.  This makes me sad, because it was my favorite addition to scrambled eggs in the morning. 
General Mills
Rating:  WIN!  LOVE!
General Mills not only maintains a website with gluten-free product lists (including batch numbers, something I haven't seen elsewhere!) but they also include advice, recipes using their GF products, etc.
What gives them a WIN! rating is that in addition to the published online information, their GF products are clearly labeled Gluten Free.  Sometimes in small letters over the bar code, sometimes (like with Chex cereal) emblazoned across the front of the box.  This means that when I am reading all the labels on the shelf, I will reach for a General Mills brand first since I know they will say directly if it's GF.  Since Kellogg's is apparently not rolling with the zeitgeist, it means I'll probably be using crushed Rice Chex to make my "rice krispy treat" recipe from now on. 
General Mills gets an extra LOVE! rating to their current WIN! rating, because Betty Crocker now has (in regular stores, no less) Gluten free baking mixes including cakes and brownies, for reasonable prices.  They also came out with a Gluten-Free Bisquick!  Unfortunately I had to pass on that because in that particular store it was shelved right underneath all the leaky, floury boxes of regular Bisquick and other baking mixes.  Cross contamination fail :-(  That's Wal-mart's fault though, not General Mills. 
Rating:  WIN!
Heinz maintains a website with a complete international list of gluten-free products (specifically labeled as to which country they're available in as gluten-free) and an advice area:
They get a WIN! rating because they also label their products Gluten Free when appropriate.  Hunt's (their main competitor here in Michigan at least) does not, which is why I had to toss half a bottle of their ketchup when we did the gluten-clean out at our house.   Heinz also produces/owns Ore-Ida frozen potato products and Smart Ones frozen dinners.  The frozen potato products are very handy to have labeled Gluten Free, since there's so much potential cross-contamination from breaded frozen products (onion rings, chicken wings, etc.) that may be processed in the same facility. 
Newman's Own
Rating:  Good-job-keep-going Newman's Own maintains a website with allergen and sensitivity info on their products (including Gluten, MSG and Sulfides)

They also state:
If one or more of the major common allergens recognized by FDA are contained in a Newman's Own product they will be listed in the ingredient statement regardless of the level and whether or not directly added to the product or contained in another ingredient.

The composition of each ingredient will be reviewed for the presence of the major common food allergens recognized by FDA.

Again, the legalese of the last bit means that they are promising to review each product component for wheat, but not specifically gluten.  Since I don't know how often the website list is updated and the products themselves (at least the ones I found) are not labeled "Gluten-Free", I can't take the risk buying it.  That's a shame, because I do love their salad dressings! 

Rating:  WIN!
They carry a list of gluten-free dressings on their website with a caveat that it may change:

But they also clearly label on the product whether it is gluten-free.  This is how we finally got ranch and blue cheese dressing (which can sometimes be an issue if the mold in the blue cheese was grown on bread!).  They pretty much do dressings, but the clear labelling means you've got a big range of flavors to play with. 

Ben and Jerry's
Rating:  FAIL!
Ben and Jerry's may maintain a list of gluten-free flavors somewhere on their poorly designed, graphic and gimmick-heavy, content-poor, hard-to-navigate website, but I didn't have the patience for it.  A site search got nothing useful. Their products claim that all gluten ingredients are specified on the label, but if they're not going to maintain an accessible list OR label products gluten-free, I have to pass.  I'll really, really miss the Phish Food :-(

Lawry's and McCormick spices
Rating:  FAIL
Neither company maintains a list of gluten-free products (as formulas change frequently) and neither labels gluten-free products as such.  They both rely on a statement that if the product contains any gluten ingredients it will be clearly noted on the label, but as policies like that can change without warning (except for the FDA top allergens i.e. wheat) it isn't trustworthy enough for me.  These two companies dominate the spice shelves at my supermarket, so I might actually have to spring for the organic bulk spices at the health food store. 


So that's the ratings, based on two hours of intense label-reading at the grocery store last night :-)  Hope it helps some other folks when looking for ways to keep the costs down on eating gluten-free!


Shannon Larkin said...

Don't know if you have Bob's Red Mill products by you, but they have a number of gluten-free products, are inexpensive, and those products that aren't gluten-free are clearly labelled. They are carried by all the major supermarkets around here, as well as at the discount places, like Ocean State Job Lot.

Notblueatall said...

I hadn't even thought about dairy (and that would be a great band name!).
If you need recipes, my BFF has a GF blog (and she's a pro food writer): feel free to hit her up & tell her I rec'd ya.
I will be keeping an eye to see how things go for you two. <3

murahta said...

I'd also like to point out that if you have an official diagnosis, certain GF purchases are (in part) tax deductible since they're considered a medical expense. You can find more about it here:

JoGeek said...

Shannon: I've picked up a few flours from Bob's to mix my own baking mix, but while I can find their organic and whole-wheat bread mixes in mainstream stores, their gluten-free lines are only really available in my area in specialty health stores. I just finished making pizza with Bob's mix and plan to review it soon :-)

Notblueatall: Thanks for the website! I'll definitely check it out.

Murahta: Unfortunately us living-in-sin (a.k.a. non-married) people get screwed when it comes to tax deductions :-) I can't deduct expenses for his gluten-free food, and he's a full-time student so the deduction does him no good. On the other hand, if someone is willing to go through the meticulous record keeping to record the difference between GF and gluten foods, it could definitely add up to a real help!

alice said...

Thank you - this is def. good to know, as all the information helps! I've got to say that I'm getting totally fed up with the 'check our website' folks. If you're not specifying batch info, how do I know whether the stuff on shelves was made under the current policy or not? And do you really want me coming back *every* time I have to buy something? I haven't got a smartphone, therefore there's no last-minute checking at the grocery store, therefore lots more $$ to the folks who *are* willing to label.