Gluten-Free Grains Get a Going Over

The year 2010 was a tough year for gluten-free grains. First came a study that showed some naturally gluten-free grains are cross contaminated by gluten. Then, a local CBS news report has raised questions about sanitary conditions at a gluten-free food company in Iowa. The TV report shows Nu World Foods in Earlville processing grain in a small facility that has no running water or functional bathroom. Anonymous employees say they had to use large bottles of water to fill the toilet tank in order to flush it. In addition, a snow plow is shown in the facility, parked near food processing equipment.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the report, having interviewed the owners of the company, which also runs Nu Word Amaranth, several years ago for a story about amaranth as healthy addition to the gluten-free diet.

I’ve spent the last few days trying to understand exactly what was being processed in Nu World’s Earlville plant and what, if any, risk products made there might pose to gluten-free consumers who buy them.

The company both makes it own brand name products and processes foods for other gluten-free companies.

Here are some facts.

The Earlville plant was operating without a license. This caused an inspector from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Approvals who visited the facility after being contacted by the news station to post a closure notice.

From the state’s point of view, the lack of a license was a bigger problem than the absence of running water.

But for consumers who saw the television report, the conditions of the bathroom caused the most concern. No one likes the thought that food they buy might have been handled by an employee who did not have running water to wash his or her hands.

While there was bottled water available for hand-washing, Susan Walters-Flood, Nu World president, said she understands consumer reaction to the news report.

But she said the report did not accurately portray how the company is run.

“For us, gluten free is not a passing trend,” Walters-Flood said. “Since 1983, we have delivered high quality food in full compliance with all standards for safe and quality foods.”

Almost all of Nu World’s food processing takes place in a newer 30,000 square-foot plant in nearby Dyersville, Walters-Flood said. In fact, the company was in the process of moving all equipment and operations from Earlville to Dyersville when this story broke.

Nu World had expected the move to go a lot faster so the company did not renew the operating license for the Earlville plant when it expired. Although the move took longer than expected and some grain continued to be processed there, no one at the company remembered that the operating license had been allowed to lapse, according to Walters-Flood.

Meanwhile, a plumbing pipe broke over the winter when the ground was frozen and the company never took steps to fix it, again anticipating that the plant would soon be shut down.

Whatever the technicalities and reasons, it’s pretty clear to everyone that Nu World should not have been making anything in the unlicensed Earlville plant.

“We were clearly incorrect in not renewing the license,” Walters-Flood said.

But does that mean you should be worried eating the company’s products?

I think the answer is no. Here’s why.

Nu World has permanently closed the Earlville plant.

The grain that was processed there was always sent on to the Dyersville plant where it was tested for quality and contamination both as an ingredient and as part of any final food product. No product was packaged and sold directly from the Earlville plant.

David Werning, public information officer for the Iowa inspections department, said there was no packing equipment and no evidence of product distribution in Earlville.

When the department inspected the Dyersville plant last week no problems were found, he said. All three dozens samples of raw material and finished product taken from the plant were found to be free of the contaminants the state tested for.

Nu World has a good track record for being in compliance with state regulations and whenever minor issues have been brought to the company’s attention they have quickly been resolved, Werning said.

In addition, the American Baking Institute, which audits and inspects food processing facilities, and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, which gives kosher certification, have inspected the plant.

Nu World makes products for other companies, including Jules Gluten Free flour and baking mixes, that are certified by the Gluten Intolerance Group. GIG has strict requirements for certification, including plant inspection.

Jules Shepard, founder of Jules Gluten Free, stood behind Nu World in comments she posted to a celiac disease website. She said her company’s chief executive officer recently visited the Dyersville plant.

“The visit confirmed our complete confidence in the facility and the products processed there,” Shepard said, noting that none of the ingredients in her products were made in Earlville.

Nu World tests its products at multiple stages of production and periodically has its test results verified by an outside lab, according to Walters-Flood.

I weighed all these factors against the facts and allegations in the television report and concluded I would still feel safe eating a Nu World product.

I don’t really understand why a company that seems committed to making quality gluten-free products would let something as important as an operating license go.

Nor do I like the fact that a decent restroom was not provided for employees even if they worked in the plant only occasionally.

But I don’t think there is enough evidence of risk or wrong doing for the gluten-free community to flush Nu World and all amaranth products down the toilet. Although Nu World processes a variety of grains in doing contract work for other brands, the company is most closely associated with amaranth. I read one comment on the Internet from someone who said the news story made they glad they never got into amaranth.

I hope that’s not a widespread reaction. Amaranth is a healthy, gluten-free whole grain that Nu World Amaranth was instrumental in introducing to US consumers.

Given that tests showed no problem with any product made by Nu World, I don’t think the gluten-free community would want to undo that hard work on the basis of this one slip up.

Cross Contamination of Gluten-Free Grains

A small, preliminary study of cross contamination has raised questions about how much gluten there might really be in some naturally gluten-free grains and flours. The pilot study, published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that seven of 22 samples of gluten-free grains, seeds and flours contained more gluten than allowed in proposed rules for gluten-free labeling in the US.

The seven samples, which included millet, buckwheat, sorghum and soy flours and millet grain, were tested and found to have gluten contamination that ranged from 2,925 to 25 parts per million of gluten. The US Food and Drug Administration has proposed allowing gluten-free food to contain up to 20 ppm of gluten.

Specific amounts (reported in mean ppm) were:

  • Soy flour, one brand 2,925 ppm and another 92 ppm
  • Millet flour, one brand 327 ppm and another 305 ppm
  • Sorghum flour, 234 ppm
  • Buckwheat flour, 65 ppm
  • Millet grain, 25 ppm

These results might have you wondering if many of the gluten-free foods you consider to be safe really are. While the numbers in the study are unnerving, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

First, the study was so small it is impossible to draw any definitive conclusions from it. In fact, Tricia Thompson, a dietitican who is one of the authors of the study, pointed this out in a blog she wrote announcing the findings.

“Sampling was not large enough to make any assessment on the overall percentage of contaminated product,” Thompson wrote. It was also too small to make any inferences on the specific grains, flours and seed likely to be cross contaminated, according to Thompson.

Thompson said in an email that study was designed specially to find out if gluten-free grains that are not labeled gluten free are likely to be cross contaminated. The intention is to use the study results to get the FDA to take a second look at a provision in its gluten-free labeling proposal that says when a naturally gluten-free food has a gluten-free label it must also say all foods of that type are gluten free. For example soy flour labeled gluten free would have to say all soy flour is gluten free. (The study suggests that’s not the case.)

Thompson said she hopes a larger study with statistically significant results will be conducted in the near future, but noted it would require testing of multiple samples of multiple brands. That kind of study would be exceedingly expensive, she said.

But an expanded study pretty cleary now needs to be done. It would be unfortunate if those who follow the gluten-free diet started to question all naturally gluten-free grains on the basis of results from a limited number of companies. And now that the question of just how cross contaminated naturally gluten-free grains really are has been raised, a definitive answer is needed.

A second thing to keep in mind is that since the pilot study looked only at grains not labeled gluten free, its conclusion that a certain percentage of inherently gluten-free grains contain gluten does not apply to sorghum, millet, soy and buckwheat flours that are labeled gluten free. Multi-ingredient gluten-free products, like baking mixes, were also not part of the study.

A number of companies that label their flours, grains and other products gluten free do test to be certain they contain less than 20 ppm of gluten. This information is often available on the labels themselves, on company websites and sometimes by calling the company directly.

Finally, nearly two thirds of the samples in the study did meet the FDA’s proposed standard for gluten-free labeling even though they did not have a gluten-free label. This was true even for three products that had allergen warning statements that said they may contain wheat.

Samples that tested below 20 ppm included basmati rice, long grain brown rice, enriched corn meal, instant polenta, rice flour, hulled buckwheat, amaranth flour, flax seed and amaranth seed. One sample of millet grain met the standard by testing to 14 ppm, but another exceeded it slightly at 25 ppm.

While you have to keep the results of the study in perspective, there is no denying it has uncovered some issues that have to be dealt with both by those who consume gluten-free grains and the FDA, which is supposed to regulate the companies that produce them.

We have known for a long time that all grains are cross contaminated to some extent by other grains because of the way they are grown, transported and milled. Still, the levels of cross contamination reported in the study are news to the gluten-free community. It’s well known that cross contamination of oats prevents them from being considered gluten free unless they are specially grown and processed. But the grains tested in the study have never before been singled out as potentially unsafe because of cross contamination.

While the study might have been intended mainly to provide information to the FDA about one labeling provision, it has farther reaching consequences. Alison St. Sure in her Sure Foods Living blog summed up the dilemma this way: “What are we to do now? Trace every grain, seed and flour, including those used as ingredients in gluten-free products, back to its origin to ensure it has not been contaminated with wheat?

I don’t think the situation is that dire, though I would like to know exactly which soy flour had more than 100 times the amount of gluten considered safe.

For now, it seems common sense and a bit more diligence regarding gluten-free flours in particular are in order. Gluten-free companies could help by making their testing information readily available to consumers, with the label being the best place to put it. Otherwise, stick with products you know and trust. Those who follow the gluten-free diet have managed to eat and maintain good health for many years relying on naturally gluten-free grains.

The study results might convince the FDA to revisit the labeling provision for naturally gluten-free grains and flours so we have more accurate information about them. And if the study of cross contamination is expanded, as it should be, it could provide us with more information that improves our gluten-free lives.