There has been a considerable stir in the celiac community recently, as those who subscribe to e-mail discussion groups or other news sources serving celiacs can attest. Not since the recent presidential election has there been so much drama and discussion, and just as in the campaigns, the primary focus has been change. However, unlike the political race, in which each candidate offered change as a solution, in the current situation, change is the problem. The cause of the furor is that Campbell’s Soup Company has announced significant reductions in its list of gluten-free products.
In October 2008, Campbell’s announced that it had reevaluated its list of products it considered gluten free. From the list, they excised all Campbell’s soups, all Pace salsas, and all Swanson canned poultry products. They also made adjustments in the list of gluten-free Swanson broths. Rumors soon began circulating throughout the celiac community that all Prego pasta sauces had lost their gluten-free status. Happily, subsequent phone and e-mail contacts with Campbell’s Soup Company established that some pasta sauces had survived the cut.
Celiac consumers were puzzled. Why had the company made alterations in their recipes? For some products, the ingredient labels looked no different than they had previously. How had the gluten status changed without the label reflecting it? Most importantly, how would celiac consumers be able to protect themselves in the likely event of future modifications in product formulations? Would the gluten-free community have to give up mainstream products altogether and consume only food items made in gluten-free facilities in order to eat safely?
Food manufacturers who are kind enough to provide lists of products they consider to be gluten free generally include a warning that product formulations may change, and it is the obligation of the consumer to check every label. For example, ConAgra’s statement is, “We always advise consumers who may have sensitivities to recheck the ingredient list on each package. Products are oftentimes reformulated and the ingredients may change.” Campbell’s states on their Gluten-Free Products list, “Because we are constantly improving our products, please check the ingredient statement on the label of every product.”
Hidden behind the euphemistic clause about “improving our products” are several possible reasons for change. When the price of an ingredient increases, so does the cost of producing the finished item. By using a less expensive ingredient, the manufacturer does not have to raise prices to cover costs. If availability of an ingredient diminishes, a company may be forced to alter their formulation. New government regulations with which companies must comply may necessitate alterations in recipes. Consumers themselves impel changes with their demands for products with improved taste, lower salt, fat, and sugar content, and in the case of celiacs, non-gluten ingredients. Manufacturers respond to pervasive consumer expectations in order to preserve their share of the market. Is it any wonder that manufacturers advise consumers to scrutinize labels for changes?
Most of the time, reading the label is sufficient for detecting changes in a product’s ingredients, but sometimes it is not. Non-specific terms such as “natural flavor” can obfuscate the change from a gluten-free ingredient to one that is not. Barley malt syrup, for instance, is a natural flavoring that contains gluten, but because it is not derived from one of the top eight allergens, government regulations do not require that its grain source be identified on a label. It is possible that a change in the “natural flavoring” ingredient prompted Campbell’s to drop Pace salsas from their gluten-free list. A shift in gluten status may also occur without a label change if a manufacturer changes or uses multiple suppliers. For example, if a food product contains cornstarch, the supplier who processes only corn products in his facility may have no question about whether his starch is gluten free. Another supplier may process various grains, and because of the possibility of cross-contact, is not willing to certify that his starch is gluten free. The manufacturer using the starch from the latter supplier can only assert that his product is made from non-gluten ingredients.
Faced with such information, the gluten intolerant individual may wonder if there are any mainstream products that are completely free of gluten. To the principles which students of science and engineering learn,
the celiac may be tempted to add the corollary,
The situation is not as hopeless as it sounds. Mankind manages to function in the absence of perfect conditions by trying to get as close to the ideal as possible. However, it certainly does underscore the importance of not cheating on the diet, as there may already be trace amounts of gluten hidden in one’s food supply.
Celiacs can simplify the quest for finding safe mainstream items by following a few guidelines:
If the news ever breaks that scientists have discovered how to create a frictionless surface, we may be on track to finding the absolute zero gluten diet. Until then, we will have to be on guard for changes in our soup.