Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Is it really gluten free?

I hesitantly bought some bread from 'Artisan Bread Organic' as they seem to be the only UK based company that make gluten free bread that is made from organic ingredients and without weird gums. I never ate sliced white bread when I ate gluten, making my own sourdough, so am not interested in attempts to recreate this by the large manufacturers.

It arrived; dense small squares. There is a law that says bread over 300g must be sold in units of 400g, a legacy from a time when bakers tried to get more money for less product by various cheats. As any of you will know if you have eaten gluten free bread, it is dense and heavy. A 400g loaf won’t fill a standard one pound loaf tin - tins are still talked about in old money of one pound two pound etc sizes. This leads to tiny pieces of bread that get lost in toasters, a significant problem as most gluten free bread is even more disgusting if not tasted immediately prior to eating.

I cut a slice. It had an even texture and very moist crumb. It looked and felt a lot like the loaves I make myself, which was a relief. One of the main reasons for buying it was to check on the standards of my loaves as well as to allow me to make recommendations if appropriate to others looking for gf bread. I had thought I would try to be an artisan baker to my locality, but that seems like such a lot of work that I am backing off the idea.

I put it in the toaster. It toasted ok. I photographed it, of course. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. Why not? After all I had ordered it. The problem was that the packet says ‘may contain gluten’. I normally don’t buy anything that has those words on the packet. Even a bar of chocolate can say that because at some point the production line used flour as a release agent. When I first came across the company a year or two ago I didn’t order bread precisely because of these words.

On their website they say “Why do your breads suitable for a gluten free diet say: 'may contain gluten’? We make every effort to keep our gluten-free breads free from gluten, including a separate area with dedicated mill, mixing bowls, baking tins, containers, utensils, but we also make bread with gluten in the same bakery. Our risk assessment concluded that we cannot guarantee that every loaf will be 100% gluten free. We have many satisfied customers for our gluten free bread, including coeliacs and those with gluten intolerance - see 'What people say'. 

They say they are taking the only route allowed as they also make gluten bread in other parts of the bakery with other utensils, and common sense descriptions of the risk are no longer allowed. “May contain is the only legally allowed phrase if there is the slightest risk.”

Why, I wonder, haven’t they taken the obvious route to reassuring intensely gluten-intolerant people like me? To use the words ‘gluten-free’ is not illegal, and won’t be even after the labelling laws change in January 2012. All you have to do is pay for a laboratory test annually (ELISA). Ok, so that can be expensive. When I looked into it my nearest lab cost £250 for the first test and about £50 for each test after that. For a big company that is nothing, but for small producers it is a significant issue. On top of that, if you want to use the Coeliac Society’s logo you have to pay an annual licence fee, which at it’s cheapest the last time I looked was £500. I wrote to them saying that this would seriously discourage small producers and innovation, but got no reply.

Even if each of these products weren’t annually tested I would have been reassured by a note saying that they randomly tested for gluten or at least acknowledged that there was a real way of being sure their exclusion processes were sound. I bought a product called imutest Gluten Flow Test (, which comes out at about £10 a shot. It doesn’t meet the current laboratory standards for being able to state gluten free on products, but it seemed like a great idea for small producers to have on hand to test new products or suppliers. The company also do a swabbing test kit which would be good to have if I ever have to use other kitchens for training, so I’ll look into those another time. The product assesses the presence of wheat omega gliadin, so presumably wouldn’t pick up the similar proteins in rye and barley which ‘gluten-intolerant’ people cannot handle. It also says that highly processed foods like low-gluten breads may not be a reliable with this kit and an ELISA method may be required.

UPDATE from company

"For your information, all of our gluten tests, including GFT detect rye as well as they do wheat but barley to a much lesser extent, detecting perhaps 100ppm.

Perhaps you could amend your blog accordingly?"

So, as I said, I couldn’t bring myself to try the bread. I react so badly to even tiny amounts of gluten I just couldn’t bring myself to voluntarily put myself at risk, even though I could argue that precisely because I react badly I could use myself as a test kit.

I ran the imutest on this new bread. I only just got the test kit so did two other tests as well to increase my confidence in the results. I tested the urid lentil flour I use in all my baking as a control for gluten-free, and a small wheat biscuit as the gluten control. The foods have to be pulverised, so I ground up a bit of the bread in the blender, washed the blender then ground the biscuit. The lentils were ground in my flourmill that has never had wheat or any other gluten-bearing foodstuff in it.

The kits are really quite cute and easy to use, and it is amusing to play at scientist for half an hour with pipettes and vials and testing pads.

I can confirm, that according to this test, neither my urid lentil flour nor the ABO bread have gluten levels above 20mg/kg gluten level, which means they comply with the Codex Standard for labelling foods “gluten-free”. The wheat biscuit does show positive for gluten.


  1. Highly descriptive post, I loved that bit. Will there be a part 2?
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  2. I have also recently tested ABO bread for Gluten using the same test, because I had a reaction after eating some of their bread - however mine tested 'positive' for gluten. I suppose that is why 'May contain Gluten' is labeled on their bread, you can't always be too sure.

    1. useful to hear that. Pity they can't manage to keep their production clean when there is so little gf bread available that even remotely resembles artisan bread.


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