Gluten Free (and not) at the Farmer's Market

I got the nicest compliment from an acquaintance the other day on Facebook.

"I just wanted to tell you I looked up your gf blog a while ago. It's great! Kudos for bringing attention to gf and celiac awareness. It's important stuff that you're doing. Keep it up! "

I was really touched and impressed...and inspired. Inspired and encouraged that I I can do so much more with my blog than just review food and restaurants. I can use this blog as a force for good, for education, for awareness. 

So to my approximate 1,000 readers a month- I pledge to try to talk more about education in the coming months, to have this blog be one you share with those who are searching. 

So today I want to highlight the pluses and minuses of purchasing "gluten free" products at the Farmer's Market. 

My case in point is a bakery near us that has a stand at the Davison Farmer's Market. A friend at church told my husband about them, explaining how excited she was for me, and that she almost bought me a cupcake. So, we went out there ourselves to check it out. So, when I approached, I inquired about their gluten free cupcakes and the steps they take to prevent cross-contamination. This was his response. 

"They're gluten free but not celiac." 

I obviously tried to explain to them that the cupcakes themselves could not be celiac, as celiac is an autoimmune disease.  He continued on, stating that he doesn't make the cupcakes and that he was just there covering for someone, but was still using the phrase "They're not celiac." He did manage to get out that they were not made in a dedicated facility or on dedicated equipment. (I tried to tell him that maybe he should say that they weren't "celiac friendly." When we walked away from their stand, my husband honestly said, "That was scary." Scary for quite a few reasons- 1) This business doesn't have trained staff and his lack of knowledge can cost them business, 2) that their products may not truly be gluten free and 3) my friend who would not have known to ask the proper questions could have purchased them for me, I could have eaten them, and I could have become sick.

I was able to contact the owner, and this was her reply-
"We use a flour blend that we make from gluten free products such as tapioca starch, potato flour, and brown rice flour just to name a few of the ingredients.  We do not have dedicated days and only some of the equipment is dedicated to gluten free products.  When we get ready to make the gluten free products we wash and triple sanitize the counters and equipment to clean as much gluten from the areas as possible.  We understand that some people are very sensitive to gluten and do our best to ensure that there is as little residue as possible.  Because we have not found a way to test that there is less then 20 ppm of gluten we tell people that they are gluten free but not celiac just to be on the safe side.  I believe that we must be in the correct range since my celiac aunt eats them all the time and has never gotten sick.  Many of our customers are returning every Saturday for more and are not getting sick as well."

Unfortunately, I'm still not going to trust it. (First impressions are everything.)

Ironically, on the way in I had seen another stand outside that stated that they had gluten free cinnamon rolls. Originally I was going to let it pass, but after that discussion, I felt it necessary to go talk to them in case they were also possibly not safe for celiacs.

So I stopped by the Cinnamom booth.The owner, who is an RN, was gracious enough to talk to me. She explained to me some of the steps she used to prevent cross contamination. mentioning that she used dedicated utensils and pans. She stated that while she was not in a dedicated GF facility, she did not prepare the regular cinnamon rolls at the same time. And then she gave me free roll to try. 

In all honesty, I don't remember the last time I had a cinnamon roll like that. I warmed it up like she suggested and was immediately transported. As a disclaimer, I felt fine eating it the day of, but had issues the next day. That being said, I've been having some digestive issues lately that may have nothing to do with celiac disease. 

And then I saw someone on Facebook advertising gluten free donuts at another local farmer's market. I swear, some days I feel like an investigator interrogating a witness. Out came the questions about cross contamination and dedicated equipment. 

What follows is the answer from Raphael's Donuts.  I summarized his response because this conversation was through Facebook.

"The gluten free donut batters are made and baked first, always. Gluten free donuts are baked Thursday night while the gluten containing donuts are baked late Friday afternoons. The measuring cups I use for gluten free are separate from the ones used for donuts with whole wheat flour. The gluten free donuts are baked in the same circular pans as the other non- gluten free whole wheat donuts. But I wash them in hot water with dish detergent, rinsed and sanitized with bleach, and air dried before being used for the whole wheat donuts.   After the gluten free donuts are baked and taken out, glazed and placed in cooling racks, the bowls and utensils are washed, rinsed and sanitized and air dried before being use for the donuts made with whole wheat flour. When served at the markets, I take them out with a separate tong and put them in foam containers. I got interested in baking gluten free donuts because I have friends who have celiac disease and have wheat allergies."

Again, not totally dedicated equipment, but quite a bit of precautions taken. Again, I'm still not going to try them, especially because he markets his donuts as diabetic friendly and uses erythritol in his donuts and glazes. Plus I'm not too excited that he uses the same pans to bake the donuts, because circular pans have little crevices in them, and I don't want to chance it. 

With all of that being said, that makes me thankful for businesses like Ethel's Edibles and Benefit Your Life that make their products in a dedicated gluten free facility. Zero chance of cross contamination. ZERO.

Ethel's Edibles products are made in a dedicated gluten free facility and are sold at the Eastern Market in Detroit. Once you taste one of her Pecan Dandy's or Whoopie Pies, you just might spend your whole paycheck at her stand. (Oh, and by the way, she now does orders online and ships them anywhere in the United States. You might need a budget just for her stuff.)

Benefit Your Life  is a dedicated gluten free facility in Knoxville, Tennessee that we stopped at while on vacation. For some background on their allergen-free status, I took this from their website. "All bakery items are gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free and sweetened with diabetic friendly coconut nectar... this includes our famous frosting!! Our bakers feel the only way to feel good and get well is to eat food that heals and fights inflammation in the body. You will find many of our bakery items using Organic Almond Flour, Organic Gluten-Free Flours, coconut oil, coconut nectar and mineral rich sea salt. We guarantee you will find ultimate deliciousness and not a trace of white sugar or genetically modified ingredients in our bakery! " 

The Sweet Potato Bar I purchased at Benefit Your Life
So, while this may just seem like a review of a bunch of bakeries, I do this to highlight the potential dangers of "gluten free" products at farmer's market. Take the time to ask your questions. Do your research, because sometimes vendors don't do theirs. While the popularity of the gluten free diet rises, it behooves us as celiacs and as friends of celiacs to truly understand what gluten free means and should be.

It also requires us to have patience and help to instruct businesses about the steps they must take if they truly want something to be gluten free. And the standard should be the same in all places, not "gluten free" for celiacs and "gluten free" for those who have gluten sensitivity. Gluten free needs to be gluten free...PERIOD. 

So as the FDA ruling comes into full force on August 5th, our involvement in gluten free labeling becomes even more important. As companies will not have to send in data to the FDA prior to their packaging stating that it is gluten free, misleading or misinformed producers will not be caught unless we ask the questions and report ill effects from when these products have made us sick. It is also important to support companies that have taken the time to certify their products through independent testers,  such as CSA, the GFCO or the new GFCP program through the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Tricia Thompson's independent program called Gluten Free Watchdog is also a great program to support as we move forward.  

Safe Gluten Free foods for us....for all.