Tag Archives: label-reading

How often do you “contact the manufacturer directly,” REALLY?

“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.

girl on iPhone black and white

Unlike bittersweet photography subjects, we don’t have to confine all our interactions to typing and swiping. Hey, food issues are isolating enough as it is!
Photo © Shinichi Higashi | Flickr

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 popcornshould 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.

gf-unsure-call-manufacturer-v2

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.

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Let’s move! toward awareness of food, fitness, food allergies, and the gluten-free diet (plus a contest for precocious sous-chefs)

I have a big celebrity crush on Michelle Obama. It’s not just her arms (though of course that’s part of it). I also admire the work she’s done to promote childhood healthy eating and exercise habits with Let’s Move! In a (relatively) noncondescending, nonextreme way, the organization has been pushing back against childhood obesity—arguably one of the biggest health issues the United States, among other countries, faces today.

Some don’t believe politicians should get involved with food. But like it or not, by way of crop subsidies, government oversight organizations, and more, they’re involved already. Plus, say what you will about MyPlate (and, as a vegetarian with vegan leanings, I’ve said plenty about that cup of dairy), when it comes to the “food” kids are served and the health education they receive at public schools, we could use a little help.

In a conversation about the initiative, my sister commented that it was annoying how issues of “home and hearth” still seem to fall to the First Lady, in a time when such issues should be equally relevant to men and women. Maybe that’s true. But gendered undertones aside, what Let’s Move! is attempting is important. A campaign to change the food and fitness culture of an entire generation calls for a prominent champion, and Michelle is using her pull to spread awareness about the issue in a way that most people can’t.

Whether or not it’s working is hard to say. I get their newsletter, which means I’m in the bubble, but skimming the initiative’s anniversary highlights is encouraging. In part, I think, due to Obama’s work, policy changes are being made, and large audiences reached. Even the nutrition facts label might get a makeover, and according to the CDC, childhood obesity fell by 43% over the last decade—though tough to tell how much of that can be credited to Obama’s efforts, given that Let’s Move! was only founded in 2010.

Lest you scold me for babbling about my socially liberal heroine on a blog focused on gluten, not politics, I’d argue that a generation of kids learning that what they put in their mouths has a direct impact on their health can only be good for the gluten-free. Children educated about nutrition will be better prepared to care for themselves if food allergies or a gluten-related disorder come their way. Moreover, they just might grow up into a nation of adults who know how to cook, care about food, and value wellness. Again, all good things for them and us.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that (as I mentioned) I receive the Let’s Move! newsletter, and the latest issue put out a call for “all young chefs” to enter the 2014 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge.

It’s a pretty cool contest. Kids ages 8 to 12 work with their parents to create and submit a delicious, healthy, original, affordable, and meaningful recipe. A winning child/parent team from each US state will get to head to DC for lunch with the First Lady.

MyPlateThe recipe does have to be inspired by MyPlate (but the protein and dairy can be vegetarian or vegan, if that’s your thing), but it also has to have a unique story—that’s where “meaningful” comes in. When I read that, I immediately thought, wouldn’t it be cool if one of the winning stories was about learning to cook with a gluten-related disorder or food allergies—facing these obstacles together, as a family, and coming through it stronger? 

Right now, the closest I come to parenting is cooing at babies at the farmers’ market and nagging teenagers to study SAT vocab (which, by the way, is due for a change in 2016). So I thought I’d throw out the challenge to those of you who do have a budding foodie in the family.

If you and your child want to enter, you have until April 5th, and I’ll be rooting for you all the way. A healthy diet is good for us all—and a matter of life and death for some. The food allergic and gluten-free community knows that better than anyone, and our food is darn good, too.

What do you think of the Let’s Move! campaign, MyPlate, the government’s focus on obesity, and the possibly changing nutrition facts label? Will your family be entering the contest?

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A Superlative GFAF Expo Roundup: Part 1

As many of you know, I spent Saturday and Sunday at the Gluten-Free and Allergy-Free Expo in Secaucus, New Jersey. I found the experience so rewarding that I wanted to give out a few awards of my own.

Speaking of which…don’t forget: Today’s the last day to enter my giveaway! I’m sending out a package full of sample-size treats from various vendors. Take my celiac personality quiz (you don’t have to have celiac disease!) and report your results for a chance to win.

The event was enormous, with both large, well-known companies and smaller companies local to the NJ/NY area or working to expand to it. Despite the size of the crowd, the venue itself was large enough that I rarely felt claustrophobic and had to wait in line to speak with a vendor. I tasted about a million great things, and there were about a billion things I wanted to say about the event, so I’m going to split up my report across a couple posts. Without further ado, here’s Part 1.

Cleverest name

Sevierly Good Gluten-Free logoWhat’s in a name? Plenty, when it comes to branding (notwithstanding the incredible ability of Rudi’s and Udi’s to coexist comfortably in the same market with such ripoffy-sounding names). My favorite was “Sevierly Good Gluten Free.” I love it because it’s a play on the owners’ last name (Sevier/severe) that connotes both really good food and strictness/seriousness—an important quality to most gluten-free consumers.

I’d be severely remiss if I didn’t also mention this Washington State–based company’s standout product: their cinnamon roll mix, which they’d made without eggs or dairy for samples and which blew a certain GF behemoth’s version out of the water.

Most accidentally convincing sales pitch

This goes to El, of El’s Kitchen. She was selling bagel chips, both plain and mixed in to what she called “Chex mix without the crap.” She elaborated, “No gluten, no MSG…,” but all I could think was, “I can take this home and put Chex in it.” I was sold.

P.S. The mixes are super good, even without Chex.

Best photo opp

Althea and me with "seedlings" pins

One photo was blurry, one had a fingertip…whatever, just pretend it’s a pumpkin.

After sampling every flavor of “Super Seedz” sold by Kathie’s Kitchen, my sister and I got stickers and were told that we were now Seedlings (which, like Sevierly, is a great name, because it suggests that we are being scattered to the wind with the germ of their success hidden within us, ideally to land somewhere fertile and sprout, spreading the word about their brand…am I taking this metaphor too far?).

Every flavor was good (e.g., Coco Joe, mmm), but on the second day, when we returned with cash, we decided we’d had enough sugar and went for the Tomato Italiano (two for one on Expo day—a deal!).

Most disappointed not to see there

Krumville Bake Shop, of Williamsburg. I met the owner, Antonella, at this summer’s NYC Celebrate Celiac event, and I really can’t sing her praises enough. She sent me home with several of her apple-ginger muffins, which include whole grain flours and shredded apple throughout—so although still an indulgence (with the taste and texture to match), they’re at least a little virtuous. We froze the muffins and enjoyed them, reheated, over the following weeks (sometimes with peanut butter…swoon).

If you live in the New York area, you can find Krumville at Smorgasburg on Saturdays through November 23rd, selling sweet and savory goodies. I know I’ll be making my way there myself!

Best brownie

Without a doubt, this goes to Whipped Pastry Boutique. Not only was it the best brownie at the Expo, but it may be the best brownie I’ve ever had. Like the Krumville muffins, I tried these first at the Celebrate Celiac event, and I also carried home several for the freezer. Fresh or reheated, these are chocolatey, moist, sitting at the most perfect possible intersection of gooey/dense and light/cakelike. No frills, no mix-ins, no nuts: just brownies.

Better than Betty? Dunno, haven’t tried hers yet. But my money’s on Whipped. We got to take home a bunch of samples again, but I’ll definitely be scouting them out around the city once our supply runs dry.

Most likely to be recreated in my home kitchen

Okay, maybe this is a bit mean, but the Kitchen Table cheese crisps struck me as an ingenious idea not quite worth the price tag for someone, like me, who prefers to make my own when possible. They’re just Parmesan cheese and seasonings, baked into chips, like the crispy bits you’d scrape off your baking sheet after making a pizza. Now, don’t get me wrong: they’re awesome. If you’re looking for a ready-made salad or mac & cheese topper, or an especially decadent cracker, and you aren’t prone to sticker shock, definitely buy a pack or two. Every flavor was good.

Best bread

Everybody Eats. Hands down. The co-owner, Pedro, was terribly nice, although he did seem to like me less once I told him, after he’d rhapsodized about the smoked salmon and prosciutto topping possibilities, that I was a vegetarian. He bakes in Red Hook (Brooklyn), and I’ve meant to try his bread for ages. Both the multigrain and baguette were out of this world. When we decided to buy a baguette, Pedro urged us to “choose our own—they’re all different.” I felt a couple up (through the plastic) and selected the one that felt right. Next time we have company, we will be pulling it out of our freezer to make some (meatless!) crostini.

Most embarrassing moment

At the New Planet stand, my sister and I did a full flight of beer tastings. The rep there, by the way, was also the only one to card us. He also read my birth year aloud, prompting a fellow taster to comment, “Since when does ’89 mean 21?” Guess we look young. But that’s not the embarrassing moment.

Breakfast Stout bottle

Not gluten-free…just seemed appropriate.
Photo © Andrew | Flickr

That was when a rep from the Freedom Foods stand came by to barter for bottles. He and the New Planet rep had twin Aussie accents and got to talking about it. Eventually, the cereal rep turned to Althea and me and told us that in Australia they eat cereal with beer, for breakfast.

“Like, in the beer?” we wondered.

He nodded earnestly, stringing us along until he couldn’t help but laugh. He also called us idiots, which you’d think would be bad salesmanship, though we still bought two boxes of Corn & Psyllium Flakes later (we think he was joking).

Anyway…apparently people don’t substitute beer for milk in Australia. And apparently I’m incredibly gullible.

On a more serious note, and speaking of being gullible: I left many of my usual food suspicions at the Expo doors, leaving it up to the event’s organizers to have sufficiently vetted everyone in attendance. I asked fewer questions and read fewer labels before sampling.

Then, on the way home from the event, I pulled out a full energy bar I’d been given. Though the label says “gluten free” on the front, on the back it says “manufactured on equipment that also processes peanuts, tree nuts, egg, and wheat.” I never would have eaten the samples had I known that.

In many cases, I did check the back of the box before sampling, mainly out of curiosity about the other nutrition info, since I was assuming everything was gluten-free. This time, I’d already chowed down on samples of two different flavors before finding out this critical info. Not cool. And not my wisest moment. We have to be the keepers of our own health. And, for me, that means NO POWERCRUNCH BARS.

Do you relax your guard at gluten-free events and gluten-free-friendly restaurants, or do you stay as strong as ever?

Note that there was absolutely no “committee” involved in the making of this post; all opinions are strictly my own and entirely dictatorial. For these “reviews,” I was not compensated with anything other than huge amounts of free samples and a sugar high. Thank you to the organizers who made this event possible, and particularly the vendors and other attendees who made it a fantastic weekend.

P.S. Find Part 2 here.

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A label-reading lesson from Hogwarts

3I’m here again to remind you that more than magic runs in the blood of J. K. Rowling’s wizarding folks. We talked about Moaning Myrtle last time, but let’s not forget our other prime celiac/allergy role model in Harrypotterland: Mad-Eye Moody.

This is a man who:

  • drinks from a personal flask rather than risking the dining hall pumpkin juice
  • drags around a magical trunk with seven locked compartments, one of which must be stuffed with Udi’s
  • has one magical eye that I’d wager can detect gluten down to 0 ppm
  • isn’t a stranger to skin issues
    . . . or mental issues
  • and, most importantly, knows the value of CONSTANT VIGILANCE.

All signs point to celiac.

Paranoia, double and triple checking, and intense suspicion of even the most innocuous-seeming thing may all be symptoms of paranoid personality disorder, but they’re also critical aspects of living free of gluten or food allergies. This past week, I learned anew the value of CONSTANT VIGILANCE after two separate sloppy errors:

  1. A few days ago, I bought a bag of salt & pepper pistachios from CVS. After eating a handful, I grabbed the bag in a panic to double check the ingredients, as I am wont to do, but this time, rather than resting easy that my first look was enough, I realized that though the optional “may contain” line didn’t list wheat, there were natural ingredients that I hadn’t queried. When I called Gold Emblem (the CVS grocery brand), a representative confirmed the pistachios were gluten-free. Still, I should know better than to eat it before I read it.
  2. Last night, I finished off a bag of popcorn kernels from Arrowhead Mills. Because I’ve been researching pure gluten-free dried beans recently without a ton of luck, it occurred to me to recheck this bag. Sure enough, no “gluten-free” symbol, which Arrowhead states it includes on products made on dedicated lines. I’ve eaten the popcorn over the course of months, simply assuming I must have done my research properly before I bought it. Apparently not. I have to wait till 9 to call their customer service line, but I’m kicking myself already.

If Mad-Eye were here, I know he’d be grumbling, “Elementary food safety, nobody bothers about it anymore.” I know, I know, Professor. Put me in detention, take points from Ravenclaw, but please, don’t let my popcorn have had gluten in it.

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