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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thorough and objective post! I , too have been on a quest to find out the deal on Sami's products, which I love and have NEVER had a reaction to. I emailed him but got no response. But when I called he was more than willing to fill me in. He seems puzzled over how these internet "rumors?" have run rampant on celiac boards. He told me about his own testing (same result you were told.) and ways he tries to prevent cc. I wish the celiac professionals would check the source for themselves rather then rely on one or two posts about a product line. Knowing it is not a gf facility is often enough for celiacs to steer clear but it is nice to know the WHOLE story- both sides.

Anonymous said...

For whatever it is worth, I just tried Sami's millet and Flax bread. It does have amazing texture and taste but I am now paying for it. I had it a t breakfast this morning for the first time and was vomiting every 20min. by 1030am. Misery is not worth the texture. I make no claims about Sami's but am just stating the facts that one ought to be very careful