Back on the right side of the country (I'm being geographically literal here), with some time to reflect on all the chaotic excitement that defines Natural Products Expo West, I have a few tidbits to share.
First, let me explain a little of what Expo is. It is a phenomenon. It is a party. It is intense competition and high-level meetings. It is a meet-and-greet. It is where alliances are formed and partnerships evolve. It is, quite simply, the most exciting, inspirational, exhausting event of the natural products industry's year.
“West,” as it's known in the industry (as opposed to “East,” which is its sister event on the east coast each October), is where most new natural products are introduced. Everything from herbal supplements to snack foods, skin care to de-ionized water, industrial ingredients to revolutionary labels and packaging come out to show off here. In the last many years, gluten-free has been huge at both West and East, just as it has been in the grocery industry in general (it remains the fastest growing grocery market segment, with steady growth of 30% each year since 2006). There are more GF products at Expo than one person could ever hope to see, and scouting them out before you ever hit the show floor is one of the tricks to not missing some along the way.
Three full days of Expo-ing is really enough, though I hit only a couple hundred of the over 6000 booths! Fortunately, I only gagged a couple times (I tried to be discreet, but it's not always possible) and spit out only two samples, upon realizing that the vendors (which will remain unnamed) had negligently steered me to non-gluten-free items (one of the unfortunate dangers of companies producing both gluten and gluten-free foods).
Of the truly gluten-free foods I tasted, I nevertheless still only took one bite of most any item. It's just not possible to eat that much food! I realize it sounds weird to those of us eating gluten-free, but there were too many food options! Add in the skin care, protein drinks and supplements that boast a gluten-free label, and three days of sampling is about all one person can handle!
I toted back samples of many of my favorites to taste again with my full attention, but I'll give you my initial impressions now in these six installments, so that you can start to look for these foods in stores near you as soon as possible! Check back for my updates periodically, as I wade through all these samples, I'll add to the categories when I find new products worth mentioning!
Before I begin though, let me make a couple points and state a couple necessary caveats:
1- Not all “gluten-free” foods are created equal. Many food companies label their products “gluten-free” or “no gluten ingredients” but when you inquire, they don't have solid answers for what that means to them. Not adding gluten to a product is a far cry from using a dedicated gluten-free facility or regularly testing for gluten contamination using an independent certification agency. Even those companies not using a dedicated facility can do gluten free right, but they need to be able to spell out their cross-contamination avoidance procedures to my satisfaction before I'll ever take a bite.
That's where the independent certification agencies (GFCO, CSA and now NFCA/QAI) come in. If they have given a product their stamp of approval, then I know those products have tested to below 10 parts per million (ppm) of gluten (GFCO & QAI) or 5 ppm (CSA), and I will almost always trust the safety of the product. Until the FDA finalizes a federal standard for “gluten-free” in food labeling, manufacturers are free to decide for themselves what “gluten-free” means to them … and it might not be good enough for me or for you. To read more about the FDA's proposed labeling standard for "gluten-free," how to comment, and when you might expect the rule to be finalized, Check out The American Celiac Disease Alliance's website or 1in133.org!
2- There probably were some tasty new products at Expo that I did not taste. (See above #1).
3- Of the products I did taste, they were either certified independently or someone high up in the company was able to describe their testing procedures in such a way that I was comfortable trying them. Rest assured, I also gave each of them my little lecture about how it would be better for them and for the consumer if they would just get certified by an independent agency, and how it would make all our lives easier if the FDA would set a standard so we all shared the same definition of “gluten free.” If you have any doubts about the true gluten-free status of any product, contact the company like I did. They should be able to answer your questions satisfactorily, or you should not eat their products.
4- Finally, my big caveat. You heard it here first: I'm a food snob. I'll admit it, but my standards are pretty high. I'm all about homemade and fresh, so none of the mass-produced baked goods could ever hope to be good enough for me to reach for them on a regular basis, but some were certainly better than others.
My reviews here are my opinions alone, and please feel free to disagree. No one paid me to review their products and the ones I review here are new and are those that I personally think are worth buying. When you find a company producing safe gluten-free food products that are really good (not just “good, considering they are gluten-free”), please, please please patronize that company and help them stay in business! Tell all your friends, tell the buyer at your local store – there are enough good gluten-free foods out there that no one should ever have to suffer through a cookie that isn't up to snuff!
Don't ever lower your standards – you don't have to!
Now, onto my product reviews!
Look for my reviews of the latest in Gluten-Free Granolas & Bars, Frozen Gluten-Free Breads, Gluten-Free Ready-Made Meals, Gluten-Free Cookies, and Gluten-Free Baking Ingredients!
Also, check out the video interviews I did with these great companies as they released new products at Expo East in Boston last October:
San-J Gluten-Free Sauces
Rhythm Superfoods healthy snacks
Maria & Ricardo's GF Flour Tortillas
Le Veneziane GF Pasta
Earth Balance Soy Milk
Boulder Canyon GF Chips
Mimic Creme Dairy-Free Whipped Topping & Creams
Kettle Cuisine GF Soups
OhGave! Agave Syrups
Cal Naturale's Svelte Protein Drink