My first experience of gluten free grocery shopping in Philadelphia was not the greatest. It was my first visit to Trader Joe’s and it didn’t turn out to be what I was hoping for! The huge sign at the front of the supermarket explained the signs to look out for in order to make shopping easier. The ‘g’ symbol which means ‘products in which no ingredients or sub-ingredients contain gluten’ filled me with confidence but this confidence was soon shattered. It appeared I would be able to find lots of gluten free products but this was only true to some extent.
I found corn tortillas which are one of my favourite things these days. They are very flexible and can be eaten at any meal with any filling. Their packaging clearly displayed the ‘g’ I was looking for. I was about to put them in our cart when out of habit I turned the tortillas over to check out the ingredients. I was then faced with a gluten free challenge. Here I was with a product which carried a ‘g’ but which also carried a warning that this product isÂ ‘Made in a facility that processes wheat and soy’ Ok so perhaps Trader Joe’s are just trying to cover their backs? Walmart does the same thing. Almost all of their products, including tinned and frozen veg, include a warning that they were made in a facility that processes wheat. I tend to stay away from these products though.
I became even more confused when I picked up a bag of fresh spinach. This time there was no ‘g’, probably because fresh vegetables are known to be gluten free, but I noticed another warning, similar to the one on the tortillas but slightly more worrying . ‘Made on shared equipment with..wheat..’ I found this on a variety of other products too including hummus (as the photo below shows). What does a coeliac do in a situation like this? Normally products with this warning do not also carry a gluten free symbol! A product made in a factory that processes wheat could perhaps be considered gluten free if precautions are taken and ingredients segregated but can a product made on shared equipment with wheat really be gluten free?
This bizarre signage got me wondering whether I’m being put off by something that is probably the case with all supermarkets but which only certain ones like Trader Joe’s choose to display…
Are most ‘gluten free’ products that we eat manufactured in a factory which produces wheat even if the labelling does not say so? Probably.
Is there a real risk of cross contamination in almost everything we eat unless specifically labelled as being produced in a 100% gluten free facility? I certainly hope not.
UPDATE: Here is the response I got from Trader Joe’s when I emailed them to ask about their ‘No gluten ingredients’ labelling.To me Trader Joe’s gluten free signage is aimed at those with a gluten allergy or non celiac gluten sensitivity rather than for celiacs who cannot risk contamination. Sadly, although Trader Joe’s are trying to help their customers by voluntarily labelling their products as they do, the uncertainties regarding what this labelling actually means puts me off from shopping there. What do you think?
Thank you for your inquiry. Products on our No Gluten Ingredients list
may be made on equipment with wheat, and not all products will be listed here or be labeled with this icon.
Our statements are a reaction to a large number of customers that
requested this information on the labels. There are two different
statements because there are two different situations. We felt it was
necessary to differentiate between “shared equipment” and “in a facility
that also processes…” It is a very difficult balance for us to
maintain between the information we provide and the actual health risk
for those that suffer from food allergies.
We are actively trying to separate manufacturing processes for all
products where we can, however, the suppliers for many of our products are not large suppliers, and they do not have the ability to build separate facilities for each item they package or produce, or to build in the necessary barriers in their existing facilities. Our statement
is voluntary, and just because another retailer or manufacturer doesn’t
have similar statements on their packaging doesn’t mean they have
separated their manufacturing processes.
A set of universal dietary guidelines for Celiac Disease does not exist.
Our suppliers follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP’s) to segregate
ingredients on shared equipment and/or in the facility. Individuals
have different levels of sensitivity, so remember the motto: When in
doubt, leave it out.