As the gluten-free product market expands, and as we continue to seek out new tools to aid us in our search for truly gluten-free products, we are in for a treat with the recent launch of Gluten Free Watchdog. Tricia Thompson, the founder of Gluten Free Watchdog, agreed to discuss it with us.
Can you explain what Gluten Free Watchdog is, and what is novel about it?
Gluten Free Watchdog (www.glutenfreewatchdog.org) is a food testing site that was started to make expensive state-of-the-art gluten testing available to the gluten-free community at a fraction of the true cost. This is the first time this type of resource has been offered.
Can you share your personal story – how you became interested in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity?
I have been gluten free for over 27 years. In the early years, I became very frustrated by the contradictory information available on several key gluten-free issues—Are oats safe to eat? Why is wheat starch eaten by the gluten-free community in Europe? Why do some support groups say “grains” such as buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa should be avoided? And then there was the issue of nutritional quality. Back then almost all gluten-free processed foods were made using refined rice/corn and starch. So after finishing graduate school I made a list of all the topics I wanted to research and then started writing (and writing and writing!).
In December 2008, the Chicago Tribune investigated three Wellshire Kids brand gluten-free products, sold exclusively at Whole Foods Market — Dinosaur Shapes Chicken Bites, Chicken Corn Dogs, and Beef Corn Dogs — and analytical results indicated that they contained gluten, ranging from 116 to 2,200 parts per million. More recently, Paul Seeling, a North Carolina baker, was convicted of fraud relating to the packaging of wheat bread as a gluten-free product. Have events like these influenced the Gluten Free Watchdog?
Events such as what occurred with Wellshire Farms made me realize that some manufacturers, while well-intentioned, did not understand how consumers in the US define gluten free when they see it on a food label. It also made me realize that some manufacturers did not know how to accurately test their labeled gluten free products for gluten, and that some of them were operating under the mistaken belief that if a product is (or is made from) a naturally gluten-free grain the product does not need to be tested. We have learned a lot over the years about cross contamination, starting with the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on gluten contamination of oats and more recently with the study on gluten contamination of naturally gluten-free grains and flours published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Combined, these events and studies may have undermined consumer confidence in labeled gluten-free foods. Most manufacturers are doing things right. It is my hope that Gluten Free Watchdog will allow consumers to have confidence in the products they eat and feed their family.
Over the last ten years, you have published a significant amount of research on gluten-free product labeling. And you recently authored a chapter on gluten-free product labeling in Melinda Dennis’ and Daniel Leffler’s new book, Real Life with Celiac Disease: Troubleshooting and Thriving Gluten Free, which was published by the American Gastroenterological Association. How has your research influenced Gluten Free Watchdog?
From the consumer perspective the most important thing to understand about allergen labeling is that it pertains to ingredients only—it does not pertain to allergens that may be in a product due to cross contact. Currently, Gluten Free Watchdog is only testing foods labeled gluten free. In the future, we may test foods that appear to be gluten free based on ingredients.
The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protect Act (FALCPA) does not currently require the disclosure of barley or rye; or, contamination by manufacturers on product labeling. Can Gluten Free Watchdog help us to decipher product labeling that may be difficult to understand?
Gluten Free Watchdog is primarily a food testing site. My other website www.glutenfreedietitian.com contains extensive information on labeling laws and ingredients.
Under FALCPA, the Federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a proposed government definition of the term “gluten-free” for food product labeling purposes. Once FDA approves a final rule, will the role of Gluten Free Watchdog change?
Possibly but it will remain primarily a food testing site. Consumers will still want to know the level of gluten at which foods are testing and will still want the added confidence that independent transparent third party testing provides.
On your blog, Gluten Free Dietitian, you discuss R5 ELISA tests, Ridascreen 7001 and Ridascreen R7011. What is the importance of these tests, and are these the tests that Gluten Free Watchdog is using? Are home-test kits accurate?
The standard sandwich R5 ELISA is one of only two commercially available ELISAs validated at the levels used for regulatory purposes and official governmental methods (the other is the Morinaga Wheat Protein ELISA). The R5 and Morinaga ELISAs also are included in the FDA’s proposed gluten-free labeling rule as possible methods for rule enforcement. The competitive R5 ELISA may be used in conjunction with the sandwich R5 ELISA when a food is highly hydrolyzed.
Gluten Free Watchdog tests food using the standard sandwich R5 ELISA and will, if necessary, also use the competitive R5 ELISA.
What products does Gluten Free Watchdog plan to test in the upcoming months? Are there any products that are difficult to test; and if so, why?
We have been and will continue to test a wide variety of products—grains, flours, breads, cereals, pastas, cookies, etc. Anyone can visit the site and browse through the products that have been tested to date. However, testing data is available only to subscribers. One of the nice features of Gluten Free Watchdog is that subscribers can request that certain products be tested.
One of the keys to successful testing of products is getting a homogenized sample—meaning any contaminant is evenly distributed throughout the sample being tested and there are no “hot spots.” This is why we test two extractions of each “homogenized” sample at Gluten Free Watchdog—we want to make sure the sample is truly homogenized. It can sometimes be tricky to get a homogenized sample when testing raw grains in grain versus flour form.
FALCPA does not cover foods regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has yet to finalize an allergen labeling rule for distilled spirits, beer, and wine. Under TTB’s current labeling provisions, the term “gluten-free” is considered a health claim and its use is prohibited. Are USDA and TTB adequately protecting consumers? If not, does Gluten Free Watchdog plan to test any products regulated by either?
Neither the TTB nor the USDA have mandatory allergen labeling and it will be interesting to see how they proceed with gluten-free labeling once the FDA’s gluten-free labeling law is in place. I have been told by representatives of the USDA that they will adopt the FDA’s gluten-free labeling law rather than develop their own.
Gluten Free Watchdog will test USDA-regulated foods that are labeled gluten free. As mentioned earlier, we may start testing foods that appear to be gluten free based on ingredients. When we do, we would be happy to test beverages regulated by the TTB.
Is Gluten Free Watchdog affiliated with any companies that sell or market gluten-free products?
Nope! That is why we really need the support of gluten-free consumers!! It is my hope that members of the gluten-free community will see the value in having this type of resource available and will be willing to contribute a relatively small amount in exchange for access to expensive testing and input on what is tested—similar to a co-op.