My recent fiasco with gluten contamination has got me thinking about hidden sources of gluten. Over time, Kelli and I have gotten pretty adept at knowing where gluten tends to hide, and how to find it and avoid. But there are times when it can be difficult, if not impossible, to sort out the truth in answering what should be a simple question: Is there gluten in this food or not? Chocolate provides a perfect case in point.
On the positive end of the spectrum, you have Oregon’s Dagoba Organic Chocolate. In a word, it’s gluten-free. Period. End of story. As an added bonus, the company is big on environmental and social responsibility, an initiative they call Full Circle Sustainability.
Moving across the spectrum, however, the gluten question becomes increasingly difficult to decipher. Take, for example, Ghirardelli Chocolate. Their informative, but potentially confusing, allergen information page lists literally twelve permutations of “these products contain x, y and z allergens, and are made on equipment that also processes a, b and c allergens.” You have to read down through the list and search for wheat/gluten as both a primary ingredient, and also as a possible source of cross-contamination. It seems easy, however, to make a mistake in reading that complicated list, and with all those cross-contaminating permutations going on, how confident can you really be that a supposedly gluten-free chocolate truly is so?
Then there’s the case of Lindt Switzerland Maitre Chocolatier. They have a very useful and seemingly straightforward list of gluten-free chocolates, available as a PDF. However, that PDF says the gluten-free information applies to products in the Swiss market only. Does this mean that Lindt products in the American market can’t be assuredly gluten-free? What’s more, the allergen portion of the Lindt website, in discussing nut and lactose allergies/intolerances, says: “all our products are produced at the same premises. Even after intensive cleaning, we are unable to completely rule out the risk of particles of milk and nuts being contained in products which do not contain these ingredients. In the event of severe allergic reactions, we recommend you consult your doctor.” Wouldn’t this same concern then apply to gluten?
Lastly, you have companies like Hershey’s and Nestle. Hershey’s allergen information says to check the labels on a given product, since their recipes and machinery and processes change often, and the labels will have the most up to date information. Can’t they provide a centralized source of information? Just over a year ago, Gluten-free Steve got on the phone with Hershey’s trying to track down an answer. He eventually got it, but who knows how many of those recipes Hershey’s has changed since then! And with Nestle, the nutritional information for the popular Crunch bar is equally problematic. On the one hand, they say that it may (emphasis mine) contain gluten from barley malt, and is made on equipment that also processes wheat. But then, two paragraphs later, they definitively say that the Crunch bar uses rice crisps that have barley malt, so couldn’t the gluten question be answered with nothing more than a “yes, it has gluten?”
Alas, one of my favorite chocolates – the Guylian seashells, a Belgian hazelnut chocolate truffle – is now off-limits for me. That bad news is right here on their website. One product contains gluten, and many others contain traces of gluten.
While I lament the off-limits nature of my beloved Guylian, and praise the wonderfully gluten-free and delicious chocolates of Dagoba, in the end, the whole “hidden sources of gluten” issue for me comes down to three things: disclosure, transparency, and clarity. All three things are inter-related. Quite simply, all I ask of companies is that they tell us what’s in our food, do so openly and honestly, and say it in a way that is clear and understandable to the consumer. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less. The best companies do that admirably, and they earn my business for it (if they’re gluten-free, of course! for the ones with gluten, I still respect you). The worst companies leave us mired in a sea of uncertainty, and uncertainty quite frankly equates to a risk I’m not willing to take. The consequences aren’t worth it.