For way too many people diagnosed with celiac disease, including yours truly, the latest report about companies marketing food as “gluten free” when those products are nothing but, sadly are no surprise.
A respected industry monitoring group recently issued a special statement about yet another problem with oats labeled “gluten-free.” Gluten Free Watchdog (GFWD) tested products from three different companies and found that four of them contained gluten above 20 parts per million, the legal limit for gluten free claims. Worse, three of those four were certified gluten-free. “These results are unprecedented for GFWD,” the group reported.
This is by far neither the first nor the last time that companies have marketed “gluten-free” products that are still unsafe for people with medical needs. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and spelt, is poison to me and others with the condition. It causes our immune systems to attack our small intestines and cause many related symptoms including a heightened risk of lymphoma and colon cancer.
What may be surprising not just to celiacs but to anyone who eats food was that the violations came from brands that emphasized safety and trust marketing. The two biggest offenders in the new report? The Safe & Fair Food Company and Gluten Free Harvest, which clearly needs to change its tag line of “The GF brand you can trust.” Both brands could stand to add a [sic]notation in front of their claims.
One of the offending oat products, Honey Crisp Apple Pie granola, tested at more than four times the FDA legal limit.
The Allure of “Free-From” Markets
It’s understandable that companies want to jump on both the “trust” and “healthy”/ “free-from” (other allergens and irritants) bandwagons. As awareness and diagnoses of food intolerances and sensitivities grow, droves of new products are coming to market.
The US gluten-free food market alone is growing rapidly. Meticulous Research projects the gluten-free market to grow to roughly $11 billion by 2029, based on a compound annual growth rate of 8.3 percent. Another research firm, Statista anticipates that the market for global market for gluten-free foods will more than double to $14 billion by 2032. Statista also reports that the coveted Generation Z and millennial consumer market segments are the most likely demographic to be following gluten-free diets.
But you can’t win over celiacs and others with food sensitivities if your products are “free from” another key ingredient: Trust.
What Trust is Worth
A lot of companies have been throwing around the “trust” buzzword lately, and for good reason. Intangible assets –which include trust and reputation—have increased from 17 percent of the value of S&P 500 companies in 1975 to roughly 90 percent.
Companies that command high trust are six times more likely to benefit from consumer loyalty, seven times more likely to command a premium price, and eight times more resilient than low-trust companies, according to research from the global communications firm Edelman.
However, as in that famous line from The Princess Bride, some companies babbling on about trust need to be told: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The Cost of Misplaced Trust
The PwC 2022 Consumer Intelligence Series Survey on Trust found that while 87 percent of executives think customers “highly trust” their companies, consumers disagree vehemently. Only 30 percent reported high trust of companies. This trust perception gap is particularly dangerous when you consider that 71 percent of consumers also said they would refuse to buy from a company that lost their trust. The same percentage of employees, 71 percent, said they would quit a company that loses their trust.
The cost of misplaced trust is especially high when it comes to customers whose health –indeed, our lives—depends on it. Because safe shopping and dining-out options are limited for us, once we know that a business cares enough to make sure that we don’t get sick, celiacs are incredibly loyal. Because our friends and family often ask us to recommend restaurants or products that are safe, we influence the behaviors of those around us.
Win over a person with celiac disease and odds are good that you’ll have a regular lifetime customer. Break our trust and there is a 100% chance that you’ve lost not just one customer for life, but that the word will spread in the celiac community. And when we dine out with family or friends who choose a place where it is safe for anyone in the party who depends on food safety, you’ll have lost not one but several customers.
When it comes to food, it’s more important to make sure your product is safe than to rush to make it the first. Otherwise you risk it being not just your first but your last gluten-free foray.
Do’s and Don’ts
How do you win trust from people with food sensitivities?
DO Know your suppliers and their safety standards. GF Watchdog recommends that companies using oats check their suppliers against a list of producers that use recognized purity protocols in oat harvesting and processing.
DO Follow best practices whether for oats or any other potential irritants or allergens. Certified gluten-free oats are grown and processed separately from gluten-containing grains to avoid the danger of cross contamination. But some companies try to cut costs by processing oats in such a way that supposedly removes potential allergens. Spoiler alert: this method is not safe. To be fair, oats are a particularly complicated ingredient. Making things even worse, roughly one in ten people with celiac disease cannot tolerate any oats because they contain avenin, a protein that can cause similar reactions. Especially if avenin and not gluten makes somebody sick, you don’t want to be caught cutting corners with oat safety.
DO Be transparent about your manufacturing and food safety processes. If your products are certified, say so. If you use best practices to segregate allergens, say so. If your manufacturing processes involve anything that poses even the hint of a risk to “free-from” customers, put it on your label. How about: “Processed in a facility that also processes foods containing wheat.” (Paradoxically, GFWD research found that among more than 400 products it tested, more products without an allergy advisory statement contained gluten than those that took the trouble to include an advisory.)
DO Identify all of your ingredients, particularly any additives that may be created using different sources including wheat or other allergens like corn.
DON’T hide behind the 20 parts per million legal limit below which you can claim your product is gluten free. First of all, many celiacs –like me—cannot tolerate anywhere near that amount. Second, just because one batch tests below the legal limit doesn’t mean that every batch will.
DON’T just assume that because something doesn’t contain obvious gluten sources, it is gluten free. Potential dangers lurk in bleu cheese, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, and all kinds of food additives including xanthan gum, dextrose, maltodextrin (and most other additives with “malt” in their names), modified food starch, and hydrolyzed or fermented ingredients.
DON’T “self certify.” Use a trusted third party.
DON’T talk the talk unless you’re willing to walk the walk. Doing otherwise can be fatal to brand reputation and profits. When it comes to gluten-free food products –or any “free from” product– selling an unsafe product is not worth taking the risk.
If you make a mistake? Own up to it and let consumers know what you have done to fix the problem.
The worst part about this latest oat debacle is that the companies involved ought to have known better, especially given the emphasis on trust and safety in their branding. Issues with oats are widely known; GF Watchdog had issued previous warnings in 2016, 2017, and 2021.
It should go without saying, but apparently needs to be repeated: If you want your food company to be a trusted brand, never, never, ever, ever take chances with food safety.
If you have “gluten free” in the name of a product –even more so in your brand name—you had better be sure that it actually IS gluten free.
This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. To subscribe to and get notifications of new posts, go to the “Around My Mind” page and click the blue button at the top right corner. Please don’t be shy about sharing, leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.
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