Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Importance of Reading Labels

The other day I was shopping when I decided to go down the soup isle. I never go down this isle anymore, as most canned soups have gluten in them in one form or the other. Specialized stores and natural health food stores tend to have a better selection and more options in regards to gluten free soup, but not your everyday regular grocery stores. At least not yet. However, it's always good to check up on your regular everyday grocery stores to see if they are making progress in the gluten free food front. A few stores have been surprising me lately, but I will touch on that in future blogs.

The point of this entry is to remind you of the importance of reading labels ... even those labels that have "Gluten Free" in huge bold letters on the front of the package. You see, as I was walking down the soup isle when I spotted a can of soup with the words "Gluten Free and No MSG Added" on the front of the can. It stopped me in my tracks. Okay, so it was just a relatively boring vegetable garden flavour, but it was gluten free canned soup. That's almost unheard of in my world. So I picked it up and almost put it in my basket, but something told me to keep reading. I think it was because it was in an imported section. By this I mean that grasping an ingredients list, the specific labelling requirements and the definitions of certain phrases can be hard enough in Canada, especially with the dual languages... never mind adding a third language in the mix. When you add in another language there is a greater chance of misinterpretation, misunderstanding or miscommunication. For instance, my gluten free can of soup, had the words "Contains wheat" in small print on the back of the label with the list of ingredients.

How can a product be gluten free and contain wheat? It's simply not possible, but I run into this type labelling issue more and more. The more I read my labels, the more I find contradicting statements with them ... usually with the newer products. This is where you, me and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency comes in.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada share joint responsibilities in food labelling in Canada. According to the CFIA's website:

CFIA enforces Canada's labelling laws and works with associations, distributors, food manufacturers and importers to ensure complete and appropriate labelling of all foods. The CFIA recommends that food companies establish effective allergen controls to minimize the potential for allergic reactions. When the CFIA becomes aware of a potential serious hazard associated with a food, such as undeclared allergens, the CFIA investigates and takes all appropriate action to protect consumers, which may include a recall of the food product.

Do you notice that it says "when the CFIA becomes aware?" Well they do check labels and randomly sample food to ensure they are following the rules and regulations, but they are only so many people and there is a whole heck of a lot of food out there. There is no way they could look at every label and test every food product to ensure that it is not misrepresenting anything. So this means, if we become aware of something, we need to make the CFIA aware of it. The more consumer complaints they receive on a particular product the more likely they will take the complaint seriously and investigate the matter further. Depending on the extent and situation, your consumer complaint my end up helping to recall a food product or at least get the label changed so that others do not make the same mistake you did.

Now I wouldn't phone them up every time you get a bloated stomach, but if you know for sure that you didn't eat anything else that could possibly contain gluten prior to a 'gluten free' product and then had a reaction, then I would consider it. I get cross contaminated frequently and my reactions can last for days, so it's hard for me to tell sometimes if I'm reacting to the food I just ate, or if I'm still reacting to the food I ate a few days ago. So if I think a 'gluten free' product isn't in fact gluten free, I will try it one more time ... but only after I haven't been reacting to anything else and only after ensuring I don't eat anything that could contain gluten before hand. If you make a consumer complaint they will inquire as to what else you ate, so it's good to make sure your complaint is valid first. However, sometimes you don't need to eat it ... like that can of soup. If it says gluten free in one spot and contains wheat in another, the labelling needs to be fixed.

When it comes to labelling, there is hope in our future. The CFIA and Health Canada are currently going through the process of trying to make allergen labelling more clear, and this will include gluten. So, possibly, one day soon you will be able to know for certain that the product in your hand does or does not contain gluten, because it will have to state it. No more exemptions and hiding in flavours or spices or other such things. For more details on that promising future, visit the CFIA website. In the meantime ... keep reading those labels!

1 comment:

  1. Canadian regulations allow products with up to 5 parts per million of gluten to be labeled as 'Gluten Free' (GF). In the US, up to 20 parts per million is allowed, and these products maintain the GF label when sold in Canada. For commercial products, a good assumption is that GF really means 'gluten light' not 'gluten free' - with a few dedicated exceptions (Kinnikinnik, Wendel's).