Going Undercover With Undercover Chocolate

A diploma from the University of Pennsylvania can take people far, but sometimes they do not end up where they planned to be.

After graduating from UPenn, Diana Levy worked for CBS News, then went into the realm of political public relations. After that, Levy tried her talented hand at options trading on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and then went to law school. As is so often the case, parenthood focused her attentions and led her to her current (and potentially most satisfying) venture — the revelation of Undercover Chocolate.

“Once I found myself with three kids in diapers,” Levy recalls, “I became a stay-at-home mom…and ultimately started a small chocolate business.”

Though she admits that Undercover started as “something between a business and a hobby,” when two of her daughters were diagnosed with celiac, Levy knew she had found her calling.

“I decided I wanted to develop a better-for-you gluten-free, allergy-friendly snack,” Levy explains.

As her daughters had been diagnosed when they were already teenagers, Levy understood that it would be difficult for them to change their eating habits. She therefore made it her business to create something they could enjoy that was not too far different (and in many cases tastier) than what they had been enjoying to that point.

With inspiration from her daughters and support from her husband (who had worked with food companies for most of his career), Levy decided to combine their needs, his expertise, and her own love of food (especially chocolate) to make a product that would be more than just another sub-standard gluten-free snack.

“At that time,” Levy remembers, “there were growing options in the gluten-free category, but they were mainly regular foods which were altered to have a ‘gluten-free’ variety…. I wanted to create a line of snacks…that were truly better than anything else on the market, but just happened to also be gluten-free.”

The result is a line of delicious snacks that combine quinoa goodness with the tasty addition of premium chocolate sprinkled with currants, seeds, sea salts and other flavorful fixins.

“This is still the absolute go-to, favorite snack not only for both of my daughters,” Levy says proudly, “but for all of their friends who have no dietary restrictions.”

While Undercover started small, Levy soon realized that, in order to maintain the quality and integrity of the product, she would have to build her own factory.

“I went from mixing by myself on the weekends in a rented commercial kitchen to my own tiny commercial kitchen in six months,” she recalls, noting that she had moved again to a 12,000-square-foot space within a year and is now looking for even more space to keep up with demand from gluten-free and unrestricted fans alike.

“We can currently run 40,000 bags per day,” Levy explains, “and project needing to double that relatively soon!”

In addition to offering more chocolate snacks, Levy also hopes to expand Undercover to other flavors so she can satisfy even more people.

“We want to offer additional snacks… that are better-for-you [and] actually taste better then anything else you might already be snacking on,” Levy explains. “We want to make better-for-you snacking fun, silly, part of every day life with products that you choose not only because the ingredients and nutritional information is better, but because they tasted better!”

WOW Flies With Coop: Coop’s Microcreamery

Boston-based gluten-free ice cream topping company supports women in need

Boston has been the site of many revolutions. From the one that made the United States an independent nation to the one that got our nation’s industry humming, the City of Champions has been the hub of many major movements.

Nowhere is this more true than in the food industry, where the “home of the bean and the cod” has also become the home of the chocolate chip cookie, the Parker House roll, Boston cream pie, clam chowder and of course, Dunkin’. As MA is also the world’s leader in per capita consumption of ice cream, it may be no surprise that some of the best ice cream toppings (which just so happen to be gluten free!) come from here. What may be a surprise, however, is who is producing them.

WOW Flies With Coop: Coop's Microcreamery

Though he started his career as an engineer, Marc “Coop” Cooper moved into electronics production management and then hospital administration before he decided to take off his white collar, put on a white apron, and dig into the world he truly loved — ice cream! Learning the ropes from local legend Steve Herrell — the man behind both Steve’s and Herrell’s ice cream — Cooper opened a few of his own stores in 1984. He immediately developed a following that resulted in being named the best in Boston a record 12 times and also being asked to produce over 2 million ice cream bon bons for another MA food magnate — Legal Sea Foods’ CEO Roger Berkowitz.

Though he eventually parted ways with Herrell’s, Cooper was not ready to throw in the chocolate-soaked towel completely. Since 2008, he has been producing his own line of gluten-free, preservative-free, GMO-free and corn syrup-free toppings under the banner of Coop’s MicroCreamery.

While he credits his wife with a great deal of support, Cooper has seen fit to find other strong women to support his ice cream topping habits.

Fortunately he did not have to look far from his South End apartment to find a team of talented women who were eager to contribute.

Just a few blocks from Cooper’s home is Project Place, a social service agency that provides resources to people who want to find meaningful work and a place to call home.

“First Project Place’s clients complete a full career assessment of their job experience, create a resume, and learn interviewing skills. Each client works with a case manager to create a plan tailored to the student’s individual needs. We offer computer training and a variety of industry-recognized certificates like Serve Safe, customer service, and OSHA. If our clients are interested in working in one of our social enterprises, they participate in an enterprise-specific internship. Then they are hired by one of our enterprises and gain transitional employment that helps them secure on-the-job experience, gain additional skills, and strengthen their resume. Our clients use their new skills and experience to secure permanent employment. Our case managers support our clients throughout their time at Project Place and for two years after they graduate,” explains Director of Finance and Social Enterprises Alan Lehman.

Among Project Place’s many ingenious initiatives is Working Opportunities for Women (WOW), which focuses on supporting women in the Greater Boston area. In addition to providing shelter and support, WOW offers work training and strives to transition its members from public assistance to financial independence. “WOW hires and trains women experiencing homelessness and joblessness,” Lehman explains, noting that the program is “focused on helping single mothers.”

When WOW launched in 2016, the administrators at Project Place began to seek partners who could train the women and provide them with meaningful work opportunities. As soon as they found Cooper, they knew it would be a sweet pairing!

“About four years ago,” Cooper recalls, “I approached a friend and neighbor who founded Haley House — a 50+-year-old Boston nonprofit that trains disadvantaged and operated two restaurants. They had a kitchen that supplied their and other restaurants. We explored the idea that I would license them to make and distribute Coop’s MicroCreamery [products].”

Despite their valiant efforts, however, the Haley House kitchen could not accommodate all of Cooper’s creations. Fortunately, the folks at Haley had friends in the neighborhood, including Project Place Executive Director Suzanne Kenney. After a brief meeting with the Project Place team, Cooper realized that it was a match made in hot fudge heaven!

“Project Place hires and trains women who…have no or poor work experience,” Cooper explains, citing these among the many benefits of his production partner. “There is constant training of new women who thus receive hands-on work experience.”

WOW Flies With Coop: Coop's Microcreamery“The conversation started about producing ice cream,” Lehman recalls, “ and transitioned to producing Marc’s truly delicious dessert topping…[which] would better fit the agency’s model for job training and placement.”

In addition to being advantageous to WOW, the agreement works well for Cooper as well.

“I reimburse Project Place for labor costs,” Cooper notes, “[but] I am freed from hiring/firing and supervision, allowing me to concentrate on the facility, testing and buying ingredients, selling products and developing new products.”

Speaking of new products, in addition to his original hot fudge, Coop’s now offers also a vegan variety, and a salted caramel sauce — all three of which have won coveted sofi™ awards (essentially the Oscars of the food industry) from the Specialty Food Association. The latest additions to the family are a cold brew mocha sauce and a non-dairy hot chocolate mix called Cocoa Felice that is named after Marc’s wife.

When asked why he got into the toppings business, Cooper cites the obvious — New England’s changeable weather. As ice cream is not as popular when it can be stored outside, Cooper wanted to offer products that would allow his employees a more steady work cycle and income. By partnering with Project Place, Cooper has not only been able to expand his business but to also expand the horizons for women and families in need.

“Project Place is focused on increasing the skills we teach and serving more people,” Lehman maintains. “Increasing sales of Coop’s products will enable us to train more women in production, inventory management, sales, customer service, shipping and computer skills…. Our relationship is truly a win-win!”

Where to Get Your Gluten-Free Fix on National Glazed Donut Day

With National Glazed Donut Day on January 12, many of our gluten-sensitive friends may be feeling left out.

Fortunately, there is a new way to get in on the fun in an authentic way!

Just outside of Boston, Freedom Bakery is producing a gluten-free donut that is a REAL donut (as opposed to a gluten-free cake with a hole punched through it). 

Created by a trio of families – all of whom were dealing with Celiac and all of whom had more than three decades of experience in food service (particularly baking) – and a registered dietician who was eager to expand options for her clients and friends dealing with this challenging dietary restriction, Freedom has already begun to distribute their donuts (which also come in apple cider and Devil’s food varieties) nationwide and to give other donut shops a run for their coffee money!

In addition to being free from gluten, Freedom’s donuts are also free from dairy, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts, and cholesterol, and are even kosher, in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Even if your diet is not so restricted, however, you too will surely love the freedom of Freedom Bakery.

Gluten-Free Living recently spoke with Molly Winsten, Freedom Bakery’s director of operations, about its unique approach to gluten-free donuts. 

Q. What prompted you to enter the world of gluten-free foods?

A. Freedom Bakery came about as a result of many years of refining our recipe for an authentic great tasting GF donut. There are many gluten-free bakery items available in the freezer section of specialty stores, but there are very few great-tasting products sold in the bakery. We are proud to introduce our real GF mini doughnuts that have the taste and texture of a freshly made doughnut. Freedom Bakery GF products are sold on the shelf and not in the freezer!

Our products are not just good for gluten free – they are good PERIOD. Our goal was to create a donut that tasted so good you would never know it is gluten, dairy, nut, and soy free.

Q. What do you see as the main differences between GF foods and their gluten-ed counterparts?

A. Many gluten-free foods are trying to mimic products that already exist, and therefore they end being “good for gluten free” at best. They are trying to recreate something that already has a successful formula, and therefore the recreated product ends up being “ok for gluten free”. Our goal was never to do that – we just wanted to create a great product that happened to be GF, versus mimic something that already exists.

Q. What is the biggest misconception about GF foods? How do you hope to change the view of GF foods among the general public?

A. There is a misconception that gluten free bakery products will never taste as good as items that are made with gluten. There are however many ingredients that are gluten free naturally. We intend to show that our products made without gluten can be just as good, if not better, than their gluten-ed counterparts. 

Q. What is your favorite GF recipe?

A. We have worked very hard here at Freedom Bakery to come up with a winning formula for our donuts. We want our products to be enjoyed by everyone, not just those with dietary restrictions. Our Old Fashioned Minis and Devil’s Food Minis are the base flavors and will be offering seasonal flavors in the future. We will also be producing a line of full-sized donuts for food service that are individually wrapped and labeled.

Q. What makes Freedom Donuts different?

For Soldiers Dealing with Gluten Sensitivity, Care Packages Can Be a Problem

The Department of Defense (DoD) says there are about 1.3 million active duty military and more than 800,000 reserve forces in the United States Armed Forces.  

According to VeryWellHealth.com, about 6 out of every 100 people are gluten-sensitive (and one out of about 130 are dealing with celiac disease).

So, it can be assumed that roughly 120,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen (and women) and marines are dealing with some sort of gluten sensitivity.

As with so many elements of military life, “rough” is the key word.

Can people with celiac serve in the military?

Officially speaking, the DoD does not allow anyone with such a condition to enlist. In fact, their Medical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment or Induction in the Military Service says all individuals who are accepted into military service must be “qualified, effective and able-bodied persons’” who are capable of successfully performing military duties.

As all military personnel are expected to be available for deployment 24 hours a day (including to places where medical support may be lacking or non-existent), having a dietary restriction that goes beyond personal belief can be a serious issue. Perhaps this is why the DoD’s policies specifically state that anyone with a “current or history of intestinal malabsorption syndromes including but not limited to celiac…does not meet the [medical] standard.”

Fortunately, there are ways to help those who are enlisted keep their digestive issues to a minimum.

“Military members diagnosed with celiac disease while on active duty are evaluated for medical fitness per the Standards of Medical Fitness,” explains Army Col. (Retired) Joanna Reagan, a registered dietitian with the U.S. Army Public Health Center, who also notes that these soldiers are then referred to a registered dietitian who can “help personalize a healthy eating plan” and who can also “educate soldiers with a variety of resources.” 

According to Col. Reagan, soldiers with special dietary needs are often put into a subsistence-in-kind program given “separate rations to…prepare their own meals.” She also recommends that such soldiers “seek out naturally gluten-free food groups which include: fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, dairy, beans, legumes and nuts.”

Does the military provide for soldiers with celiac?

For most soldiers, the main sources of nutrition are meals ready-to-eat (a.k.a., “MREs”). While these dehydrated foods may not be 100 percent gluten-free, many companies providing those meals have been expanding their lines to offer more choices with less chance of contamination. MRE Star recently compiled a set of 12 meals that are predominately protein-based (e.g., beef stew, Curry chicken, pinto beans, etc.) and so minimize any risk, even if they may not remove it altogether.

Col. Reagan suggests that soldiers dealing with gluten sensitivity and other concerned civilians consult The Combat Rations Database, which, she explains, is “an interactive, educational website designed for visitors to view accurate, up-to-date nutritional information about combat ration menus.”

While the military itself provides many MREs, many independent distributors (including families and religious and community groups) have been working to assemble care packages that truly care for people with special diets or dietary restrictions. Among these is Military Missions In Action, an North Carolina-based organization that is dedicated to assisting members of the Armed Forces who are dealing with disabilities of any sort – from being without limbs to being without homes to being without enough appropriate food while in the field or back in the States.

“Way too often our service members with dietary restrictions are overlooked,” says Military Missions In Action Executive Director Michael Dorman. And even though he admits that only about 1 percent of Dorman’s 8,500 care package requests have involved special diets, he and his volunteers are happy to pack them with love and also with nuts and nut butters, gluten-free gum and candy, and even gluten-free Girl Scout cookies!

In addition to providing soldiers, students, and others with dietarily-appropriate care packages, SnackBOX donates part of their proceeds to hungry people around the world.

If these organizations do not do it for you (or you just want to do it yourself), that extra-special care can make any care package even more special. In a 2015 post on the blog “Livin’ the Crunchy Life”, a veteran with celiac recalls assembling his own gluten-free packages for soldiers.

“I was quite overwhelmed with all of the companies that donated product for this project,” the poster recalls, providing a list of participants that can make similar assemblies easier for others. “As a veteran that now knows I can’t eat gluten, I would have been so happy to receive one of these when deployed!”

How many soldiers are gluten free?

According to a “data pull” from Comprehensive Ambulatory Provider Encounter Record (CAPER) on Nov. 19, 2019, Col. Reagan, says that there were 156 active-duty soldiers in 2017 and 130 active-duty soldiers in 2018 with celiac disease. As many soldiers know that gluten-related issues can impair or even preclude their serving, however, it is most definitely the case that many are dealing with these issues but not declaring or discussing them. Some, however, are choosing to speak out and bring the oft-hidden issue of gluten sensitivity into the light.

In 2011, Army National Guard Captain B. Donald Andrasik caused a stir with his book Gluten-Free in Afghanistan, in which he detailed the lengths he had to go through to serve while dealing with celiac disease.

“It was certainly a challenge,” Andrasik recalls, explaining that, instead of quitting, he began to look for new sources of food, realizing that some might be risky. 

While soldiers in the United States can be given non-active duty posts so that they can be given appropriate medical care if something goes wrong with their diet, other countries do not limit their soldiers. In 2015, the Israeli Defense Forces announced plans to provide gluten-free battle rations and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made it possible for soldiers with these conditions to receive the ranking that allows them to join combat units. Hopefully, other nations (including ours) will soon follow suit.

In the meantime, however, there are alternatives and ways to support soldiers in need. So if you or someone you know is dealing with gluten-related issues while deployed or wants to serve but is afraid of policy or other potential pitfalls, or if you just want to say “thank you” in a way that will truly show you care, there are more ways to send food and love than ever.

See here for a list of Department of Defense approved care package organizations.


A Sweet Start: She Opened a Bakery at 17 for Those with Food Allergies

Jennifer LaSala started her first bakery at age 17 and won the local high school business plan competition in Chelsea, Massachusetts, coming in third place out of 1,100 students at the regional competition. As a student at Johnson & Wales University, she expanded her recipe repertoire, eventually being named Goldman Sachs Entrepreneur of the Year at age 20.

Treatment for a freak accident a year later led LaSala to discover that she had food allergies, and so she expanded her efforts further to serve others in this community. Today, she runs her own shop in Boston with plans to open another in nearby Worcester. People come from all over New England for her wares, which are now not only gluten free but also free of all other major allergens. You can find her at Jennifer Lee’s Allergen Friendly & Vegan Shoppe and jenniferleesshoppe.com.

Gluten-Free Living asked LaSala about her inspiration for gluten-free baking to get to know her shop better.

What prompted you to enter the world of gluten-free foods?

I entered into the world of gluten free when I fell at work and broke my neck. While recovering, I broke out in hives constantly, and doctors told me that I had a gluten and dairy allergy. I later found out that I am actually allergic to opioids, but the experience of having to stay away from gluten and dairy, and how difficult it felt to live a normal life, is what made me what to help others with food allergies.

What do you see as the main differences between gluten-free foods and their gluten-containing counterparts?

I would say that two main differences would be, one, the cost and, two, the need to use multiple flours to achieve similar results. The flour that I buy for the bakery is more than twice the price of white flour. The fact gluten-free ingredients cost so much more money is ridiculous. In order for our products to taste just as good or even better than their gluten-filled counterparts we have to use a mix of flours and other ingredients to get that texture that holds together, isn’t gritty, and just overall tastes great.

What is the biggest misconception about gluten-free foods?

The biggest misconception for gluten-free foods is that it all tastes like cardboard. Yes, back in the day it did because gluten free was new and people would have rather eaten cardboard-like items than get sick with gluten. However, gluten free has come a long way, and now you really can’t tell the difference with a lot of products. 

How do you hope to change the view of gluten-free foods among the general public?

I try my best to change this misconception by having people sample our products, and usually I don’t even tell them that it is gluten free, so that they are not biased. The look on their face when they realize that gluten free can actually taste good makes me so happy! And that experience will help this misconception go away.

Which is your favorite gluten-free recipe?

My favorite gluten-free recipe is my mom’s banana bread. Not only is it the best banana bread that I have ever eaten, but the smell of it when we are baking it fills the market and fills everyone who walks by with memories of that special someone making banana bread for them when they were younger.