Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Sami’s Bakery Millet and Flax Seed Bread Really Gluten-Free?

The short answer: I’m still not sure.

The short summary: This past holiday season I tried Sami’s Millet and Flax Seed bread. It is not labeled, “gluten-free,” but it has no gluten-containing ingredients. I tried it as both bread stuffing and bread pudding (not in the same meal).

It brought a tear to my eye.

It was so good, so unlike other poofy/spongy/sawdust-like GF breads. It handled like bread. It was amazing. I wanted to recreate it myself and went online to find out more about it.

I found controversy instead. Is it or isn’t it gluten-free? How did they get that texture without yeast or gluten? What about this test posted on celiac discussion boards claiming it had 5000ppm of gluten?

In short: is Sami’s Bakery Millet and Flax Seed bread really gluten-free, and who is telling the truth?

What began as investigative research instead became a study in how information is disseminated over the Internet and touches on anonymity, trust, and how to evaluate primary and secondary information sources. So come with me, Detective Jane Friday, and let’s see what we can reasonably determine.

Just the facts, Ma’am.

What is “gluten-free” and who cares?
Very briefly, gluten is a protein found in certain cereal grains such as (but not limited to) wheat barley, rye and spelt. Some people are not able to digest / have a really bad reaction to this protein. They have what is called celiac disease. There is no pill, there is no cure; if you’re a celiac, you don’t eat wheat. Ever again. Period. Well, I mean, you can do whatever you want, but if you’d like to avoid the diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, anemia, headaches, mood swings, generalized weakening of the immune system, etc. associated with being a celiac who is still ingesting wheat, then you need to stop eating all gluten-containing grains.

This is not easy.

Gluten can show up in the weirdest places – soy sauce, artificial crab meat (kiss those yummy California rolls goodbye!) and cheap vitamins. What? “Modified food starch” is often made from wheat and is used in salad dressings, mayonnaise, and drugs. Beer is made from barley. Of course gluten is in all baked goods, but it can also be in your spiced French fries and the glue in envelopes.

We’ve heard a lot about allergies and parents’ reactions to allergies in the news. You do have to wonder about the necessity of handling a peanut found on the floor of a bus as a hazmat situation(although as a general rule, you don’t die from ingesting gluten when you’re a celiac. You can die from the chronic diseases associated with undiagnosed celiac disease, but that’s different from a peanut allergy.) However, in defense of parents of children with food allergies, I will say this: Most people have no idea what they eat (I once explained the whole “gluten-free” thing to someone, who then said, “Bummer! No whole-wheat bagels. But you can eat plain ones, right?”). Unless your 8 year old is precocious enough to ask if the caramel coloring in a cough drop was sourced from a US or non-US food supplier, then it’s the parent who has to check everything out. Sit with someone who inexplicably vomits five times in three hours and see if you can keep hyper-vigilance at bay. The reason parents are so paranoid is because they have to be.

I am not a celiac
But I do play one in my everyday life. After three laparoscopies for stage-3 endometriosis, I began to wonder if there might be something else I could do, something doctors maybe weren’t telling me? When I gave up wheat six years ago, I also gave up rabid PMS, menstrual cramps that could drop a horse, anemia, brain fog, and hay fever (that last one was an unexpected and delightful bonus for someone who had allergy shots for fifteen years). I can’t help it if my HLA DQ test says I’m not a celiac; I know what I know. Wheat don’t work for me.

Why Sami’s Millet and Flax bread is different
It’s gluten that gives bread structural integrity. Manufacturers of gluten-free products try to compensate for the lack of gluten by increasing the protein content with eggs and gums. These gluten-free breads can be dry as dust or have the consistency of a sofa cushion. You can’t eat a sandwich off them because they crumble and fall apart.

The Sami’s bread lists only the following ingredients: Organic Millet Flour, Brown Rice Flour, Water, Aluminum Free Baking Powder, Sea Salt, Organic Grounded Flax Seed [sic]. With no eggs or yeast, somehow this bread has both flexibility and strength. There’s no weird beany flavor from soy or chickpea flour, and it behaves like wheat bread, so it can be rolled, toasted, dried as breadcrumbs, or used as a sandwich.

The label on Sami’s bread does not say that it is gluten-free, but I found it in the GF section of my health food store.

The web controversy
A loaf of this bread at my health food store cost me six bucks. As a baker, I naturally wanted to reverse engineer the product and save money. I went online and found that I was not the only one who tried using only these ingredients and failed. More disturbing, however, was a post that circulated on many boards, basically saying that Sami’s bread was independently tested and not only wasn’t it GF, but it was loaded with gluten. However, there were also people like me who had tried Sami’s products and loved them.

Was the warning a sort of GF urban myth? Was somebody lying about the true ingredients in the product? This link to Ellen’s Kitchen and this link to the message board demonstrates the kind of discussion surrounding GF breads and the what’s safe/what’s not conundrum.

Tracking backwards
The post says the testing originated with the Tri-County Celiac Support Group (TCCSG) of Michigan. The information has been posted in multiple discussion groups (here it is again on by the same user, “cruelshoes.”

I wrote email. Cruelshoes did not respond (I can think of several reasons for that, all of them reasonable; however, we are sticking to facts and not my personal conjecture).

However the president of the TCCSG did respond to my email, and was most helpful. The original page describing the test still exists on the TCCSG server, though I’m not sure you can actually navigate to it from the site’s homepage.

To be absolutely thorough, the next step would have been to write to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Food Allergy Research & Research Program and find out what their lab protocol is, how this test is done, what the margin of error is on the test, etc. I did not do this owing to time, but their web site contains some good information.

I also wrote to Sami’s Bakery in Florida. They did not respond. So much for me as an investigative reporter.

So I called the bakery. I do not know who answered the phone, but judging by the noise in the background, it was the guy standing closest to it. Here is a summary of the conversation:

Q: Is Sami’s Millet and Flax bread gluten-free?
A: There’s nothing in it that contains gluten, but this is not a gluten-free facility. We make the Millet and Flax products in the morning when everything is clean, and then make the other products afterward.
Q: Does it contain wheat as an ingredient?
A: No. But it’s not a gluten-free bakery, so… But we don’t put wheat in it, no.
Q: Have you ever done testing on the bread to find out what the contamination level is?
A: Actually, yeah. A year or so ago we sent it in and it tested at 33 ppm. That’s pretty close, pretty good (note: as yet there is no standard in the United States for what the term “gluten-free” actually means. The European Union’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) set their standard at 20 ppm).

And that was all I felt I could ask this guy without sounding like a lawyer and scaring him.

Who can you trust as an authoritative source?
  • A dedicated forum on gluten intolerance?

  • A user posting in a forum?

  • The president of the TCCSG?

  • An anonymous guy in a bakery?

  • Me?
There needs to be a source we can trust, and in my own investigation, I’m not satisfied that source was revealed. Are the various celiac forums moderated for scientific and nutritional accuracy? Unless cruelshoes had eaten the bread herself and had a reaction, what were her reasons for posting the information on the message boards after it was already a year old? Sami’s Bakery never responded; are they aware of the problem? Whoever answered the phone at the bakery never hesitated to answer my question (most people say, “WHAT free?”) and seemed to be comfortable discussing the product. These answers matter for two reasons: first because of the legal ramifications, secondly because people’s health will be compromised by inaccuracies.

Out of all my leads I trust the president of the TCCSG most of all, and yet I still have questions. Why was the decision made to remove the link to this post after a year? What additional information did Carolyn Sullivan have access to to create the post quoted by cruelshoes? The post on the TCCSG does not provide all the information listed in the re-post by cruelshoes. Mary Guerriero was very helpful, and I suspect all I need to do is ask and my questions will be answered.

The bottom line
I tried the Sami’s Millet and Flax Bread and I loved it.

I had no reaction to eating it.

I also did not, and I would not eat it every day because I don’t think my body does well with refined carbohydrates, period. I’ve been living six years trying to be basically gluten-free and I know how I react to both small (was that a crumb of toast in the jam?) and large (you mean there was soy sauce in that?) amounts of contamination.

The advice of the President of the TCCSG is sound: “I think we, as gluten free, have many many choices out there now and I, for one, would not risk a product that wasn’t gluten free.” If I were newly diagnosed and trying to get gluten free, if I knew I reacted violently to the presence of gluten or if I knew I was particularly sensitive to gluten, I wouldn’t try Sami’s Millet and Flax Bread.

Email to Sami's Bakery Regarding Their Millet and Flax Seed Bread

from Marianne
date Tue, Jan 13, 2009 at 2:22 PM
subject A happy yet concerned customer

Dear People of Sami's Pita Bakery,

I want to thank you for making Millet and Flax Bread! As a baker who found herself needing to go wheat-free, for six years I despaired of finding a gluten-free / wheat-free bread that even remotely resembled the "real thing." When I tried yours, I was very impressed. I wanted to find out more about your products and your bakery, so I looked up "Sami's bakery" and "gluten free millet flax bread" online.

Are you aware of the debate and sometimes heated emotional controversy surrounding the Millet and Flax products? All of it seems to boil down to a R-Biophar Ridascreen Fast Gliadin test (in English: a test to find the presence of a protein found in gluten) done at the request of the Tri-County Celiac Support Group of Michigan ( ) by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in 2007. ( and ). Less that 20 ppm is considered "gluten-free." The greater than 5000 ppm listed as a test result indicates more than accidental contamination.

Sami's Millet and Millet and Flax breads do not list any gluten-containing ingredients, but the label on the packaging clearly states that these products are made in a facility that processes wheat and may contain traces of wheat. Part of the issue may be that health food stores are labeling these items as "gluten free" and customers are accepting that at face value. I myself am torn; while I did not have a problem eating these products once a month, would daily ingestion make me ill? When your body is the test tube, "experimenting" with products that "might" be okay is not only uncomfortable, for some it's possibly dangerous. I have several questions which I think will address these concerns:

- How does the Millet and Millet and Flax bread products get that texture without wheat or yeast?
- Are there additional ingredients not listed on the packaging because they're not used in large enough quantities to require it?
- Does Sami's try to limit gluten / wheat contamination, and if so, how? Do they bake these products first thing in the morning, or have a different set of pans?
- Has Sami's ever tested the Millet or Millet and Flax products for wheat / gluten? Would Sami's be willing to have them tested and post the results on their web site?
- Would Sami's be willing to put an FAQ on their web site addressing consumers concerns? Would Sami's allow me to post their response on my blog, Café Tor? ( )

I think it's important to clear up these rumors and uncertainty so that people who have concerns about their diets get the information that they need. While I understand that Sami's bakery may not wish to answer all of these questions (people would love to have the exact recipe!), answering any of them would be most helpful in clearing up whether or not those who need to eat gluten free diets can safely eat Sami's Millet and Millet and Flax bread products.

Thank you so much for your time,
Marianne Richardson

Sami's Bakery did not respond.

Back to the original post.

Email Written to User "Cruelshoes" Regarding Sami's Bakery Products

from Marianne
to cruelshoes
date Mon, Jan 5, 2009 at 9:24 AM
subject Sami's Bread and the TCCSG


I am a blogger over at blog over at,
and I am looking for the user "cruelshoes" from the and forums. Is this perhaps you, or can you put me in
contact with this user?

The reason I am looking for this user is that, while doing some online
research about Sami's Bakery products ( ), I
came across a quote attributed to the President of the Tri-County
Celiac Support Group of Michigan which indicates that Sami's Bakery
products are NOT a good choice for someone trying to be gluten-free.
The quote can be found here ( ) and here
( ), both posted by
cruelshoes. I've searched the TCCSG site and I cannot find the test
results posted there. Where did the original quote about a test being
done come from?

I'd like to try to untangle the heated online thread about Sami's
products. I have no affiliation with Sami's Bakery. Although my HLA
tests are negative, I am a person who is 6 years gluten free and
healthier for it. I tried the Millet and Flax bread and liked it, but
I can't ignore the greater than 5000ppm gluten test results. Please
let me know if you have any information regarding this topic, and if
you are willing to allow me to post any response you might have.

Thank you,
Marianne Richardson

The user did not respond

Back to the original post.

Email Written to the Tri-County Celiac Support Group and Their Response

This is the email I wrote to the current president of the Tri-County Celiac Support Group, Susie Cattin:

from Marianne
to Susie Cattin
date Mon, Jan 5, 2009 at 9:28 AM
subject TCCSG ELISA test on Sami's Bakery products?

Dear Ms. Cattin,

Although my HLA tests are negative, I am a person who is 6 years gluten free and healthier for it. Still, a sandwich would be nice once in a while. While doing some online research about Sami’s Bakery products ( ) I came across a quote attributed to the President of the Tri-County Celiac Support Group of Michigan which indicates that Sami’s Bakery products are NOT a good choice for someone trying to remain gluten-free. The quote can be found here ( ) and here ( ), apparently posted by the same user.

Did the TCCSG ever do this test on Sami’s products? Are the results posted on the TCCSG site? I could not find them. In February 2008 you were not yet president, but do you know anything about this ELISA test? Would the TCCSG be willing to post it on their site?

I blog over at and I’d like to try to untangle the heated online thread about Sami’s products. I have no affiliation with Sami’s Bakery. I tried the Millet and Flax bread and liked it, but I can’t ignore the greater than 5000ppm gluten test results. Please let me know if you have any information regarding this topic, and if you are willing to allow me to post any response you might have on the Cafe Tor blog.

Thank You,
Marianne Richardson

However, Susie Cattin was not the president at the time the original post was written (2007), so she forwarded my email to Mary Guerriero:

from Mary Guerriero
Susie Cattan
date Sat, Jan 10, 2009 at 11:54 AM
subject Sami's bakery

Hi Marianne. My name is Mary Guerriero, past president of TCCSG in SE MI. I am the one who quoted the Un of Nebraska Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Food Allergy Research & Research Program lab. We had a company that was, at that time, having their products tested also for gluten content, send these products to this lab. This was Feb 19, 2007. It was their results we went by, not ELISA. They are a research lab and have an extremely good reputation. At that time, there were 2 other companies that also had the products tested at different labs with the same results. I think we had the results on the website for over a yr and then chose to take it off. Didnt know this had come up as a topic again. I do not belong to the listserve and was asked by Carolyn Sullivan if she could post the results and told her absolutely. I think we, as gluten free, have many many choices out there now and I, for one, would not risk a product that wasnt gluten free. If you want a good sandwich, there are now many many gf products that are wonderful. I hope this answers your questions. Thanks so much. Mary

Back to the original post

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Worst pickup line ever?

A few weeks ago MP and I were in New York City, and we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with some friends. You could actually spend an entire week there and still not see everything (we tried it), so if you only have two hours, you need to be very, very targeted in what you want to see. We went to the Arms and Armor section,whereupon our little group went its separate ways. I think that's because when a group of more than 3 people tries to stay together, it starts to feel like a field trip, and once you've graduated from middle school, that's just weird.

I went to the Japanese section. Seeing the daishō (both large and small swords, the the katana and the wakizashi, respectively) is interesting, but I like to look at the tsuba and menuki (the sword guards, which are removable, and the small decorative objects generally woven into the silk binding on the hilt). Generally speaking a separate set of craftsmen created these items, as opposed to the craftsmen who created the actual blades, and I could go on at great length about the artistry, etc. involved in all these pieces, but that's not what this post is about. But if you're interested, absolutely go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These items are separate from the main collection for two reasons: because they're Asian (as opposed to European) and because, being Asian, they often have textile elements (the silk wrappings) which need to be under special low lighting conditions. Wandering the Asian collection is very private and quiet and... well, gloomy.

I was absolutely absorbed by a priceless set of swords, complete with a helmet, bearing a rabbit motif, when a voice next to me asked, "Have you ever thought about how many people they've killed?"

I turned to regard the questioner. No American man can tie his tie that perfectly unless he's military, and the dark blue (green? It's dark in that display) sweater and slacks with the stripe confirmed that.

My first thought was, "Dude, they've got bunnies all over them." But the Japanese don't see design elements in quite the same way, and after all, a razor-sharp blade with cherry-blossoms on it is still razor sharp.

My next thought was just exactly how to interpret the question. Because the truth is, I have thought about it. You can't look at those beautifully crafted blades gleaming in the dim light and not think about it. It's an object of art which has the sole purpose of dealing out death. Does such an object become imbued with some part of the lives it has taken, or the personality of all who have wielded it? What is it like to hold such a blade in your hand? Does it whisper words, a history, that only another swordsman could understand?

This man was military. But for time and culture, the swords behind the glass might have been his. He had trained for combat; had he trained for the sword? I don't see how you can serve in the Armed Forces and not think about mortality. Was he back from somewhere? Going somewhere?

More importantly, when a man and a woman are strangers alone in a darkened room and he asks her such a question, is it a vaguely creepy moment or the worst pickup line ever?

Saying something pithy about weapons as beautiful objects, I sidestepped the question and I sidestepped him. I didn't sense any particular harm to him, but I didn't want to find out. As a rule I don't strike up conversations, and especially not when the opening line is so fraught with creepy ambiguities. I give him credit, though, for saying what was on his mind. Some day I'd like to be able to ask random strangers for the answers to all those things I've always wanted to know — but that wasn't one of them.