Monday, May 16, 2011

Gluten Free Give and Take

Mainstream food companies both giveth and taketh away gluten-free products.

General Mills has announced that it will no longer be making a gluten-free claim on three varieties of its Hamburger Helper type meals.

Ironically for a company that has made a big splash with it's attention to gluten- free products, the announcement comes in the middle of Celiac Disease Awareness month.

Frito Lay, on the other hand, saw celiac awareness month as the perfect time to announce that the company will begin labeling its some of its chips "gluten free." The snacks have long been made with gluten-free ingredients, but the addition of the label will make it easier for gluten-free consumers to identify them. 

Even more important the gluten-free claim will be backed up with testing to  20 parts per million, the standard the Food and Drug Administration has proposed for gluten-free labeling. Lay’s Classic potato chips, Fritos Original corn chips, Tostitos Scoops! tortilla chips and Baked! Lay’s Original potato crisps will soon roll out with a gluten-free label.  A full list of products that the company is already testing to 20 ppm is on the Frito Lay website.

Meanwhile, General Mills said it's Cheesy Hashbrown, Asian Chicken Fried Rice and Asian  Beef Fried Rice Helper meals will no longer be made in a dedicated gluten-free facility. Although the ingredients will not change, the company says the meal mixes could be cross-contaminated with gluten.

To add insult to injury, the helper meals will now have a warning statement that they "May contain wheat."

Gluten-free versions of the meals may still be on store shelves - so stock up while you can. But be careful. Newer product not considered gluten-free could soon be on the shelf right next to the older boxes.

General Mills, which touts it's gluten-free commitment through a website devoted to gluten-free recipes and products, says this move is not a sign of reduced interest in gluten-free consumers. The company still has 300 products labeled gluten free.

But to me commitment means making choices that preserve the gluten-free nature of a product. How difficult  would it have been to keep making the helper meals in  dedicated plant? I suspect it's often easier to make a product in a way that does not put gluten free as a first priority. But doesn't commitment mean you do it even when it's harder?

I don't want to be overly harsh with General Mills. It was quick to get the word out about the change in production. And even without the helper meals General Mills remains a leader among mainstream companies making gluten-free foods. Their Chex brand cereals set an industry standard for how to easily and affordably convert an existing product to gluten free. The cereals are a staple in our house and I would be much more upset if Chex was the product getting its gluten-free label yanked.

It could be that the meals just weren't selling well, although the company did not make any mention of decreased sales in the announcement.
Instead, the company emphasized that its dedication to gluten-free goes all the way to the top, meaning the chief operating officer's wife, who has celiac disease.

If you have been following the gluten-free diet long enough, you know its not uncommon for a product that was gluten free to suddenly change or disappear entirely. Sometimes it's a change in how the product is made, others in the ingredients used to make it.

In the early 1990's Kellogg's  made a cereal called Kenmei Rice Bran that was labeled gluten free and snapped up by gluten-free cereal lovers. Then it was gone.

The fear that gluten-free items won't last hovers in the back of the gluten-free consciousness. It's why we all get nervous when stories appear that say gluten free is just a fad. We worry that when the fad passes, companies will pack up their gluten-free labels and go home. While that wouldn't matter to people who've tried the gluten-free diet and moved on, it would make things much harder for those who have celiac disease and gluten intolerance and will be gluten free for life.

Perhaps these fears are unfounded. Yes, Hamburger Helper meals are off our gluten-free list, but Frito Lay products are more assuredly on it.

It's just the give and take of the gluten-free world.

Amy Ratner


Pat said...

The loss of the GF Hamburger Helpers won't bother me nearly as much as if it were Chex, just like you say. Makes me want to go out and buy some more Chex just so they'll know there's still a good market for them :-)

Anonymous said...

I am a mom of a newly diagnosed Celiac 14 year old son and the last few weeks have been challenging. My son also suffers from nut, peanut and egg allergies so it has been a little bit frustrating for me. Alot of the gluten free products also have a statement "may contain nut or may have been processed on same equipment". Thank you for the information.

Janet said...

Frankly, I've never seen the Cheesy Hashbrown Hamburger Helper meals at my local store and the Asian Chicken Fried Rice and Asian Beef Fried Rice Helper meals both have soy so I couldn't have them anyway. However, I find it odd that they should make such a big deal of rolling out these gluten free meals and then less than a year later, un-gluten free them.

TLC said...

Our family has had gluten reactions to Rice Chex several times. We no longer purchase their products. <20ppm doesn't do it for us.

Amy said...

What we think of as reactions to a product can be frustrating and confusing. And certainly if you think something is making you sick you should avoid it.
But you should also know that the Rice Chex cereal could contain an amount of gluten less than 20 ppm. If a test for 20 ppm is negative for gluten content, the product could have anywhere from a theoretical zero amount of gluten up to 19 ppm. General Mills has said it takes steps to prevent cross contamination, and many people eat them with no reaction. But only you can decide what to include in your own gluten-free diet.