Monday, January 6, 2014

Gluten-Free Grub and Price Gouging

Udi's Gluten Free Bread with expensive "artisan air holes"in their diminutive loaves

Several years ago a new young doctor finally properly diagnosed the reason for my decades of panicked dashes to the loo with stealth attacks of lower GI distress. These relentless urgent attacks were too often visited upon me at times like the final minutes in the 4th quarter of a New Orleans Saints game where a touchdown or field goal could cinch the game for them . . . listening to loud cheering from the bathroom made it even worse because there was no way to tell who was cheering for what.

After the diagnosis I underwent an endoscopic adventure down into my small intestine for several diagnostic snips of its lining and a look around. The velvety villi-coated lining that takes our digested food and sends that nutrition out all over the body had large clotted, dysfunctional patches where the tiny waving villi were bent over, clumped up, and out of order. Most of that nutrition had been going straight south for way too long.

Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating the protein, gluten, and is  commonly called gluten intolerance. Unlike other types of bodily malaise, the cure for Celiac disease requires no expensive medicines or procedures after diagnosis. Simply just quit eating anything at all with wheat, barley or rye. It was that simple and in an amazingly short time the old small intestine banquet for the body starts working again and in my case I felt better than I had in ten or fifteen years.

My widowed neighbor lady across the street got six large grocery bags of food from my fridge and pantry which, I learned, contained wheat, barley or rye. Like soy sauce being 50% wheat ...who knew? Gluten in the form of wheat is in beer and almost all processed food like those great tasty frozen Turkey Tetrazini microwave entrees. After a couple of weeks of learning to eat gluten-free, my digestive system quickly started operating properly and blood tests were now spot on.

But no cheating is allowed like that one little nibble of pie crust because eating even 5 parts per million of gluten can literally get your bowels in an uproar again. So discipline is quickly acquired.

My story of years of misdiagnosis as "irritable bowl syndrome" is told over and over again in publications like the Mayo Clinic newsletter which notes that "Celiac disease was rare, but it's now more common in all age groups. Although the cause is unknown, celiac disease is four times more common now than 60 years ago, and affects about one in 100 people."

After my diagnosis and the good gluten-free gastric vibes, I quickly learned to automatically check package ingredients for wheat, barley or rye. It's much like scanning for land mines now before journeying on into new dietary destinations.

And early on, I noted that the available gluten-free products on store shelves, though usually packaged in regular sized boxes or bags, had a content weight scarcely sufficient to satiate the appetite of a medium sized elf or gnome.

And not only are skimpy portions and product sizes smaller, they can be twice the cost of a similar non gluten-free bag or box of the same thing with lots more food in it. Early on, finding a gluten-free loaf of bread that was not like a hockey puck or that tasted no better than shredded cardboard was a challenge. Companies claim higher cost is from having to have dedicated production lines to prevent wheat contamination. I think they are more dedicated to plain old American price gouging.

Around 2010 more acceptable breads with good flavor started to show up on shelves here in the Gulf South. Notable, with reservations, are products by Udi Baron, who with his wife in Denver in 1994 started out as "Udi the sandwich man" with ready to eat sandwiches. Today, Udi's has expanded into a very large operation in the USA and UK with bakeries, cafes, restaurants and their "Artisan loaves" of gluten free breads, and more recently bagels, cookies, energy bars and more.

Good stuff, but at almost six bucks for a 12 ounce loaf, which is about a third the size of a standard gluten-loaded loaf of white or whole wheat bread I feel genuinely gouged every time I buy one. We Celiac Captives are forced to accept shopping in the "gluten-free sections" which have smaller sizes, and half the product in bags and boxes and double the price, compared to the wheat laden equivalents in the rest of the store.

In addition to the 12 ounce loaf of Udi's bread for six bucks, is their package of four quite good hamburger buns also at $5.60 a bag or a buck forty a bun, and on and on. Udi's bagels are extremely good when toasted . . . four in a bag for six bucks. All I can figure is that with really slim pickings for tasty gluten-free anything for so long, those with Celiac disease and others who have, for whatever reason, decided they like a gluten-free diet will easily pay whatever the price tag says.

I learned early on from my old friends in Italy that the country has had a Celiac Disease Association for more than 40 years. Not only that, but with universal health care in Italy, those diagnosed with Celiac get a generous monthly ration of gluten-free groceries just like a prescription including great pasta of all sorts. Restaurants and stores in Italy routinely have gluten-free menus with breads, pastas, and desserts. Forget trying to take a deduction for the steep prices for gluten-free food here in the USA.

I get a CARE package from Italy every few months full of really great gluten-free pastas that cook and taste like pasta made with classic semolina flour. Stuff labeled gluten-free in most stores here in the South that I have tried includes cookies that crumble and disintegrate, mixes that collapse and are really disappointing including most pasta that is disgusting.

So, the gluten-free beat goes on. Better products are out there if you can find them ... and afford to pay twice as much for half the food. Although the Udi's products are good, it is a real crap shoot each time I buy a frozen loaf of what my friends refer to as "your little chicken shit loaves of bread" as to how many slices will have holes in them.

All too often the lack of quality control of Udi's Artisan bread results in large sections in a loaf being good old gluten-free air. Artisan bubbles in the bread, seen in my photo above, as well as collapsed tops of the loaves, and irregular thicknesses of the little slices do not make Udi's the best thing since sliced bread. Close, but no gluten-free cigar.

We are a captive market for gluten-free products like Udi's offerings, and who knows, there might even a developing market for those lesser bad products from folks who actually love to eat toasted hockey pucks and dine on soggy pasta.

But hey, I can watch a whole football game now so what's a few air-bubble-riddled loaves of gluten-free bread?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your blog, my fellow gluten intolerant friend. For several years I too experienced the indignity of a panicked dash to a bathroom and more than once feared I wouldn't make it. Won't even talk about the bloating and gut wrenching pain in the lower intestine. And like you, was surprised at how easy it is to control with a little vigilance. As for products, I have found a very good bakery in Oakland, Ca. It's called Mariposa Baking Co., I order on-line and the delivery is the next day. I live in Sonoma Co. CA. Oakland is about 50 miles from my home in Santa Rosa. They have a good variety of baking products and it tastes like the "real" thing, even flaky. It is pricey though, $7 for a rather small loaf. As for pasta, still an on-going search for me. Charlie Rooks in Atlanta sent me your blog. Stay well and gluten-free. By the way, I can now get through an entire 49ers game. Ever hear of them?
Miriam Frye

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