Wheat a minute! Just because its label says ‘gluten-free’ ...

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Wheat a minute! Just because its label says ‘gluten-free’ doesn’t mean it is

Gluten-free bread? 100% honey? Do a double check. There are companies out there flouting the law

Consumer journalist
Consumer demand for gluten-free bread and other baked goods has taken off globally.
GLUTEN-FREE OR FREE FROM FACT? Consumer demand for gluten-free bread and other baked goods has taken off globally.
Image: 123RF/Scyther5

Food fraud is an international scourge.

The cheating happens worldwide on a massive scale – whatever consumers are prepared to pay a premium for, there are fraudsters either adulterating it with cheaper, similar-looking or tasting versions, or going the whole hog and doing a complete substitution.

Olive oil, honey, dairy products – you name it, it’s happening.

Consumer demand for gluten-free bread and other baked goods has taken off globally, and while local demand is significantly behind that of the US and Europe, industry analysts now list SA as one of the next five key international markets for gluten-free bakery.

But given the premium price, it’s very much a high-end, premium-channel product in this country.

Those who choose gluten-free as a “healthier” option to wheat-based baked goods consider themselves to be gluten-intolerant or have a medical condition such as celiac disease, which requires that they avoid gluten at all costs and are willing to pay several times the price of “ordinary” bread or rolls for the gluten-free versions.

And restaurants have been forced to include gluten-free options on their menus.

It’s the gluten that gives bread and rolls their soft, spongy texture, so the downside of the nongluten versions is a generally less appealing density.

So when a bakery in Cape Town – Freedom Bakery of Bergvliet – began selling bread made from the likes of sweet potato, quinoa millet and coconut, all wonderfully soft, light and spongy, the gluten-free set were thrilled.

But several samples of bread and rolls tested by Sanas-accredited lab Facts (Food and Allergy and Consulting Services) in Stellenbosch between 2015 and 2017 tested positive for the presence of wheat.

“It may be concluded that they contain levels of gluten consistent with what is expected to be found in wheat flour based rolls,” said Facts owner Dr Harris Steinman after one such round of tests.

The bakery owner responded by saying she bought ready-milled flours from different companies and baked with it in good faith.

South African legislation specifies that foodstuff can only carry a ‘gluten-free’ claim if it can be demonstrated that it contains no more than 20mg/kg (ppm) gluten.

She claimed to be the victim of “a malicious and vicious attack”, saying she used “particular fermentation techniques” to achieve the wheat-like light, spongy texture of her nonwheat goods, which baffled and confounded her detractors.

I was told the City of Cape Town’s forensic chemistry laboratory would be conducting its own tests of that bakery’s products, but the last I heard, they were having logistical problems with testing kit apparatus.

Facts was recently contacted by a Joburg woman, who asked me not to name her, wanting them to test baked goods from a Centurion bakery, Nature’s Healing, for wheat.

She’d bought packs of “mini rice croissants” and “white rice bread”, and was surprised to find them lighter, fluffier and more like wheat bread than she knew non-wheat, gluten-free bread to be anywhere in the world.

She cannot tolerate wheat products because of a severe autoimmune disease.

“I would be very happy to be proved wrong and the explanation to be that they have found a great recipe,” she told Steinman.

But it was not to be. The lab tests revealed that both “rice” products had gluten levels consistent with wheat – more than 80mg/kg.

South African legislation specifies that foodstuff can only carry a “gluten-free” claim if it can be demonstrated that it contains no more than 20mg/kg (ppm) gluten, a level considered to be generally safe for celiac disease sufferers.

I put it to the company in an email that it would appear that the products in question were as light and spongy as wheat products because they do, in fact, contain wheat.

Despite resending that e-mail, and leaving a phone message for the owner to respond to my e-mail, there has been no response.

It was the same story when I tried to get a response from Al-Haidi Manufacturing”, the supplier of Queen Bee Honey’s “honey-based syrup”.

Food labelling laws require that products carry an ingredients list, with the percentage of the product highlighted in the description and/or image to be declared.

The shape of the jar, the word “honey” in large font while “syrup” is considerably smaller and the huge image of a bee on the label have led some people to mistake it for 100% honey.

Martin Dzviti was one of them – he bought his from a Pick n Pay in Midrand, and was not happy when his wife pointed out the little word “syrup” to him.

“This product is clearly an unknown syrup whose label is definitely designed to cheat and misrepresent the truth,” he said.

Food labelling laws require that products carry an ingredients list, with the percentage of the product highlighted in the description and/or image to be declared. This product doesn’t have that, so I asked Al-Haidi Manufacturing what percentage of that “honey-based syrup” was honey.

No response to my e-mail, and neither of the phone numbers on the label are functional.

Pick n Pay does respond to media queries, happily, and this is what the retailer had to say about that syrup product: “This product was withdrawn and shouldn’t have been on the shelf.”

It’s not sold by Checkers or Shoprite, and SPAR’s distribution centres don’t have it listed either, but individual stores have the right to buy products directly from suppliers.

Interestingly, neither honey nor sugar requires a “best before” date, as they last indefinitely.