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

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cake Mishaps

We’ve seen the tallest gluten-free cake, we have the Cake Boss, Last Cake Standing and my Facebook page has all sorts of gorgeous gluten–free cake creations, but in my house it is all about cake mishaps. This is the time of year where my husband feels particularly “slammed.” My birthday, Mother’s Day and our anniversary fall within three weeks of each other. Luckily, the kids have been inspired by Food TV and help out in the dessert category for these events, but it is not without a pitfall or two.

The first cake mishap was an egg explosion. Cracking the eggs is a big treat because if all four kids are participating, there aren’t any cakes that call for four eggs! My youngest won the honor of cracking the egg and to this day no one can figure out how he did it, but he managed to get egg all over the kitchen. He says he was trying to crack it. The others swear he somehow squeezed it and egg went flying on the floor, the cupboards and the counter. Cleaning up raw egg is gross, so he is banned from egg cracking now.

The second cake mishap was flying chocolate cake. Typically on my birthday, I will suggest ice cream or something easy that doesn’t require baking. This year, I got specific. I wanted a double layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.

I shook the dust out of my very professional cake pans and laid them out with the specific gluten-free mix I was requesting. My husband was in the kitchen prepping the fish for the BBQ, a couple of kids were helping out and I left for a few hours.

When I returned, there was one beautifully frosted chocolate layer. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or diminish the finished product, but I know that the mix I picked specifically makes two layers. I must have been looking at it funny because I got the full story without asking.

My husband explained that he had flipped the two layers out onto plates to cool. He was frosting one and my daughter was frosting the other. He said he had never seen anything like this before, but somehow she managed to flip the plate with the frosted cake off the table and up in the air. It came splatting to the ground, frosting side down while shattering the plate. Ok then, down one cake platter and down one layer of cake.

The last cake mishap was Mother’s Day. The kids were in baking mode and all the ingredients for a gluten-free vanilla cake were in process…except for the vegetable oil. Apparently, I was out of canola or vegetable oil. I was really hoping they did not use olive oil; it’s great for some things, but not cake. I then noticed the open laptops on the kitchen table so I asked if they googled to find a substitute. My oldest daughter said that three of four recipe websites said to use applesauce. The fourth had said to use butter or applesauce, but since I was such a “freak” these days about nutrition they chose applesauce.

When we sat down for dessert, I started eating the vanilla cake with chocolate frosting and I mentioned out loud that I tasted a little cinnamon too. Gales of laughter ensued because we didn’t have plain applesauce and they had to choose between cinnamon or berry applesauce. Berry would have turned the cake an unpleasing shade of “tanish purple” they chose cinnamon. It was a little funky with the chocolate frosting, but it was a lovely way to finish up a Mother’s Day BBQ.

While all of these pros create towering gorgeous creations, my kids create some good memories. Each time we sit down for cake, each mishap is rehashed and exaggerated. My youngest will never live down the egg explosion.

Kendall Egan

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A piece of gluten-free cake

Jules Shepard & John Forberger building the cake
In the end it was piece of cake that drew Food and Drug Administration attention to the critical need for specific rules for using a gluten-free label on foods.

Make that an 11 foot 2 inch cake assembled before a grass roots crowd of gluten-free enthusiasts in a downtown Washington, D.C. hotel.

Mike Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, told the celiac disease and gluten intolerant audience at the 1in133 cake-building event that he has heard "loud and clear" that they want a definition for gluten free. "We absolutely understand why you are here and why it is important," he said. "We will get it done."

The FDA was supposed to approve a definition by 2008, but it's proposed 20 parts per million gluten-free standard has been in limbo for years. That leaves it up to individuals companies to decide what it means when they use a gluten-free label, from those that use rigorous testing to assure no gluten from cross contamination is in a food or get outside certification that includes testing to others that don't test at all.

Taylor said the delay in an FDA definition comes from a thorough scientific safety evaluation and peer review that has caused the FDA to take a hard look at the proposed 20 ppm cut off for foods labeled gluten free. While 20 ppm is still "on the table," Taylor said the FDA has been investigating whether lower levels should be considered.

When 20 ppm was proposed, the FDA said it was the lowest level for which there were scientifically validated tests that could consistently detect gluten in a wide range of foods. But testing has improved in the past few years, leading the FDA to examine whether it should look at lower levels.

"We want to get it right and we want it to be grounded in science," Taylor said. "This will be the basis for what it safe."

He predicted the FDA in a few weeks will finally release the long-awaited safety evaluation and open it to public comment.

While it's nothing new that release of the safety assessment is the next step in the long, arduous process of  getting a definition for gluten free, Taylor said the clamor for approval now has his attention. "Hopefully this will expedite it," he said.

Credit for the clamor goes to the organizers of the 1in133 cake event, which swelled from email and  Internet conversations between two people with celiac disease who had never met to a movement that has so far generated nearly 9,000 signatures on a petition to the FDA asking for action.

Couldn't resist taking pic with cake
It was all built around the publicity magnet idea of building the tallest gluten-free cake ever. And it was pulled off with spot-on planning and execution by Jules Shepard, owner of a gluten-free flour company in Maryland, and John Forberger, a gluten-free activist from New Jersey, with a little help from a lot of friends. Both could be found straddling icing-spotted eight-foot ladders as they worked feverishly to assemble and ice the tower of a cake right up to the last minute.

There had been a lot of guessing about how tall the cake would turn out to be. In the end it measured 11 feet 2 inches. Since "1in 133" had become such a rallying point for the gluten-free community, cake workers added another inch or so  before they took the cake apart to donate it to a Washington, D.C. soup kitchen.

Final height, appropriately, approximately 11'3.3"

Amy Ratner