“For the most complete and accurate information, contact the manufacturer directly.” Some version of this advice appears in every introduction to gluten- or allergy-free living worth reading—and for good reason. Getting the answer straight from the source allows you to dodge cross-contamination bullets and sample new products with confidence. It’s great!
So why does it feel so much like homework? Much like SAT vocab drills, it’s a chore that can only help me, yet still seems unbearable. I use every excuse to avoid it:
- I’m busy.
- I’ll just buy some other product I know is fine.
- Customer service isn’t available because it’s a weekend/evening/holiday/they prolly just won’t pick up, man.
- If I take it home, call, and find out I can’t eat it, I won’t want to return it. In fact, I know I wouldn’t return it. That’s wasteful!
- All that information is online anyway.
- Is this really my life?!
I’m curious: Am I the only one who feels this way?
Personally, if a label isn’t telling me what I need to know, I always turn to Google first. (It’s like the Seamless ad says: “The best part about having a smartphone is never having to call anyone.”) For most products, you can find bloggers who have written about their experience contacting the manufacturer, or lists on About.com, or debates on forums. Sometimes the manufacturer’s website even pops up with a handy FAQ (though said website is invariably mobile-unfriendly to the extreme). A lot of times, that’s probably enough. But not always.
You might think no one would find it in his/her company’s best interests to stop producing a line of gluten-free products or start processing a previously allergen-free food on contaminated lines, but you’d be wrong. Manufacturers change stuff all the time, for reasons both clear and abstruse (though almost all, I’d wager, connected to money). Case in point: our go-to gluten-free dried beans provider, Shiloh Farms, recently discontinued its entire line of GF legumes due to supplier costs.* (They still sell a few other certified items.)
It goes the other way, too, of course. Brands cited as no-gos in ancient Celiac.com threads have cleaned up their act, and both small and mainstream companies introduce new goods every day. Even the mighty About.com Guide Jane Anderson can’t keep pace with every recipe reformulation and label change. (She does, of course, advise us to “always, if in doubt about the gluten-free status of a product, contact the manufacturer’s customer service personnel directly.”)
We may be only 11 years away from falling in love with our computers’ operating systems (according to Spike Jonze) and 4 to 10 years away from a cure for celiac disease (according to Stefano Guandalini), but even so, the best source for accurate, up-to-date information isn’t necessarily the Internet.
You don’t always need to contact the manufacturer. You can look for reassuring label claims, trustworthy companies, and reliable certification organizations (though we all have slightly different ideas of what those are). We’re also getting ever closer to the time when manufacturers officially can’t put “gluten-free” on a label without it being, you know, true.
Of course, even if you trust a brand, you should check labels for anything new and troubling. You don’t, however, have to call every time (unless you’re in dire need of a hobby).
On the other hand, when:
- something—like popcorn—should be gluten-free, but doesn’t say it is
- a label includes that sneaky GF-in-a-circle near-copy of the “certified” logo
- you’re holding two cans of honey-roasted mixed nuts made by the same company and only one says it “may contain wheat”
- you want to know why, in the name of god, Shiloh Farms would be so cruel as to take away your one source of dried chickpeas, out of which falafel absolutely must be made
- you’ve read EVERYWHERE that egg- and bunny-shaped chocolates are usually wheat-contaminated, but you’ve found the one bag in the store that doesn’t say it is, and you need to be sure
. . . well. That’s when you call the manufacturer. Or email, if it’s available and you don’t mind waiting a day for a response. I prefer email, because I hate waiting on hold, like getting a response in writing, and am antisocial; but I do force myself to call sometimes, too.
And, you know what? In the end, it is a chore, but it’s a satisfying chore. Sometimes, sadly, you learn you can’t eat that thing (in which case—woohoo!—you didn’t waste your money on poison!). But other times, you learn you can.
You learn, for example, that Soyboy’s online FAQ is out of date, and their products marked “GF” are not processed on lines with wheat. You learn you can open that tempeh, turn it into a Cajun stir-fry way too spicy for your sister to enjoy (sorry), and chow down. And that’s when it all—hold music included—becomes worth it.
When do you pick up the phone to call a manufacturer? Or do you prefer email? (Don’t be afraid to show me up, if you’re actually a responsible adult who makes phone calls and stuff.) Have you ever had a really negative, or especially positive experience with this?
*How do I know the legumes were canceled due to supplier costs? Because I contacted the manufacturer directly! Duh! And I’m glad I did. Although I was disappointed not to learn it was all some big mistake, I was pleased to hear they’re seeking new suppliers of gluten-free garbanzos. Falafel and I are not, I hope, through for good.
This is one of the (many) reasons I love your blog, Molly, because you often say what others think but don’t say, or don’t have the imagination to create (I still think about those gf fairy tales, maybe a part 2 someday?).
I don’t often call manufacturers for the same reasons you don’t. I always feel somewhat guilty about it, as I’m the only one !! When now I know for sure I’m not 🙂
Btw, nuts.com sells gf legumes (and candy and flour and dried fruit) online. The products are great but shipping costs are annoying. It would be cost effective to place orders with friends if possible.
Thanks, Dana! I’ve seen that on Nuts.com; unfortunately, they don’t have whole dried chickpeas, just chickpea flour and “falafel mix” (which…I just refuse! Falafel’s too easy to use a mix! Uh, if you have chickpeas, that is).
There will be more to come on the fairy tales, promise! And don’t feel guilty—you’re far from alone. 🙂
I prefer email too for food or cosmetics. I have called from the grocery isle if necessary (no smart phone). I always call on prescription generics if the pill is suddenly a different one at the pharmacy.
I too always call about prescriptions. Those calls usually go fine, although the pharmaceutical customer service reps give the most annoying butt-covering responses ever (“none of the starches are from gluten but we don’t test the final product so we can’t guarantee blah blah”). But since it’s impossible to look up a different generic and get that instead (I think), especially taking into account which are covered by insurance, I just take the pills in that case and hope for the best…
Great post! Being tasked with, “contacting the manufacturer,” always sounds like so much CYA that I immediately think, “I didn’t need really that item, did I?”
Yep! Same! Thanks for the comment. CYA = cover your ….?
I only contact the manufacture when something is wrong with the product or it didn’t perform like it was supposed to…and I think a couple times I contacted when a product disappeared from shelves. I’ve never done it when trying to decide if I want to buy.
Hey I wanted to tell you this post was the first one in months that when I clicked on the title in my reader it brought me directly to the actual post. It seems like it’s fixed now. 🙂 (I don’t know if you remember but it was taking me to some random post from months ago.)
Have you had any luck finding out what happened to the disappeared products? That must be frustrating.
And I do remember your issue and am super pleased to hear it’s working again! At least, I hope that on my most recent post it still worked properly.
I share your bitterness about Shiloh farms beans! Have you ever found any other GF dried beans?
And about calling. If a package doesn’t say made in a dedicated facility, I contact the manufacturer. First I go to their website and if I don’t find the info, use contact form to inquire. I keep a GF info folder of email responses from various manufacturers.This way I keep a record of my interactions to help me remember. But sometimes I have to call, which I hate. When we are in Costco we call the manufacturer while standing right there. If they are not there, bring the item home and call later and if we don’t like the answer, return the item next visit. At Trader Joes, if during the week, we take items to the customer service desk and they have a number to call. If weekend, wait and call ourselves during a weekday. We wish that Kirkland (Costco) and Trader Joes marked their house brands better!!! Whole Foods label brands are the worst. You can’t even call or ask in the store. You have to email a store and hope that someone has time to check and get back to you.
Yes Molly it does seem like homework. I remember doing this so much right after the diagnosis, and had a literal raging headache for about 3 weeks. I SO appreciate companies that mark their products well, and that there are some companies that we can trust.
I’ve been trying to figure out if Arrowhead Mills garbanzo beans are gluten-free; they’re listed under the “gluten-free” section on the website, but squinting at the tiny image of the bag, I’m not seeing a GF symbol. (I guess I could…um…contact them.) I wish I could figure out who Shiloh Farms’ overpriced distributor was and go directly to them!
Your system sounds incredibly organized (though I can see why it would also be headache-inducing). Thanks for sharing it. Totally agree about Whole Foods. Trader Joe’s…I’m sort of over TJ’s. They produce everything on lines with wheat! Pasta sauce! Spinach! Argh!
With Trader Joe’s, we mostly anymore just buy the fresh organic produce, organic jarred applesauce and a couple of types of nuts that aren’t produced with wheat in the facility. I had my first cross-contamination realization at Trader Joes, right after the diagnosis….when I read on the label about that tomato sauce–produced on shared equipment…I was like whhaaaaaaat???? And Molly, what spinach of TJs are you talking about, produced with wheat?
I’m more of the “avoid and move on” school, partly because I already have to answer the phone at work and make calls to places like my insurance companies. More phone calls usually sounds awful, especially if it’s going to involve menus and hold time.
Though I don’t usually buy many processed foods it irritates me that dried red lentils of all things can be contaminated with gluten – what’s that about! Why can’t they keep beans and lentils away from cereals!
If I have to contact a company, I do it by email and they usually respond within 48 hours. I rarely call since it usually costs from my mobile!
I know. I haven’t had a lentil since diagnosis, because of that. I haven’t found any that are safe.