Monday, June 29, 2009

Separate but Equal?

Lately the gluten-free community has been abuzz with the news that Betty Crocker has come out with a line of GF brownie, cookie and cake mixes. This after two members of the Betty Crocker family went because of a Celiac diagnosis, the other because her family went GF. (Betty Crocker, it's also worth noting, is part of the General Mills brand, which has worked to make its Rice Chex and other cereals gluten-free.) Many GF bloggers, in particular, have gone gaga over the Betty Crocker development, praising it unabashedly.

There is, of course, something to celebrate here. For one, Betty Crocker now supports both the Celiac Disease Foundation and the Celiac Sprue Association. For another, it offers added choice (mainstream choice, at that) to gluten-free consumers looking for specialty food products.

Set within the broader context of the gluten-free food community, Betty Crocker becomes the latest big step in what amounts to a GF version of a civil rights-esque movement toward "separate but equal." In many respects, this is what we've been asking for - heightened awareness, increased product choice and availability, equality, not a second-rate foodie experience. When we go to the grocery store, we buy our separate but equal specialty GF products, and when we dine out at restaurants, we make our dinner selections from our separate but equal GF menus.

Then again, separate but equal didn't work so well for civil rights seen through the advantageous lens of hindsight. And I have to wonder how it will work out for the gluten-free community. While part of me does applaud developments like Betty Crocker offering a line of GF products, part of me also laments it.

Up until very recently, going gluten-free has actually been a two-fold switch in diet (I've said this before in an implied way on this blog, and explicitly in comments I've left on other GF blogs). There is a switch from gluten to gluten-free, but there has also historically been a necessary switch from processed food to whole, natural foods. This was in part a matter of circumstance - because of a relative scarcity of specialty GF foods, we gravitated toward naturally gluten-free foods such as whole meats and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc. Either that, or we baked our own treats from scratch at home.

But now, the landscape of gluten-free foods has changed (and continues to change) in big ways. Namely, gluten-free foodies can now trade a glutenous processed food American diet for a gluten-free processed food American diet, if they so choose. That's a shame.

We switch from a gluten to a gluten-free diet because we are sick, and we want to make our bodies healthy. Don't you switch from processed food to whole, natural foods for the same reason? It's no secret that, to grossly overgeneralize, Americans are unhealthy eaters. Gluten-free cuisine, in turn, is often a liberation from an unhealthy diet. It is opportunity knocking on your door, and before the Betty Crockers of the world offered their GF cake mixes, it was a door we had to walk through. Now we have the choice to walk through that door or not. We can eat a separate but equal processed food diet... Or we can eat a healthy, whole, natural GF diet. I encourage you to choose the latter.

I can say with certainty that you won't find GF box cake mixes in the cupboards of the Bronski household. When our sweet tooth does have a craving, we'll make a dessert from scratch. And barring that, we'll order from a specialty GF bakery like Aleia's or Mariposa. They make delicious GF desserts with ingredients I'd recognize from my own pantry, and which are free of preservatives and other unfamiliar ingredients. For my money, the world needs more from-scratch home GF cooks, and more Aleia's and Mariposas.

Perhaps one day we'll write about the box mixes on this blog (from Betty Crocker, and from the companies that are sure to follow)...if only for the sake of reviewing them for those readers who would appreciate such information. Otherwise, though, I plan to set my culinary sights on other territory...namely a gluten-free diet which is happily separate but not quite equal.

- Pete


Anonymous said...

Rah. That's pretty heavy, but I agree. What is nice to know is that someone else can make something for me and I'll not have to fret so much about getting ill. When non-gf persons cook for me, I worry about contamination. This may help.

peterbronski said...

Hi Anonymous... thanks for your comment. You bring up a valid point, and an angle I hadn't considered - a way for non-GF folks to easily and safely make GF foods for people like us. There's definite value in that.

Cheers, Pete

Emily said...

well, I had the vanilla cake and it wasn't as good as the GF Pantry or Whole foods cake mixes. Let alone one that you could come up with yourself.

I thought the flavor really left something to be desired. Could it be because I've been off processed foods with additives for a few years now...?

But I have to agree, it's nice to have something easy and recognizable available to our friends who want to make us something to include us in the regular world of eating.

Steph said...

I'll admit, I consider myself to be more of a "natural" gluten-free eater...but I do happen to have a few packaged mixes in my pantry. Mostly I buy from the local producers, and save them for a rainy day at the end of the month when I've run out of grocery money, and need to satisfy a sweet tooth. Or when we're rushing to get out the door to a family function and the beautiful chocolate creation I had envisioned collapsed as I pulled it out of the oven.
I also agree w/ your anonymous friend. I would drop something like this by the hostess' house if she wanted to put something together for a special occasion.
The first year I went GF, my husband snuck over to the health food store, grabbed the nearest GF cake mix, and took it to his mom. It wasn't the most amazing cake I've had since I learned how to bake GF, but it was a really great treat when I didn't think I'd have anything to put candles on.
I have yet to give into the Betty Crocker thing, as I am happy with the mixes I do have, and more especially the recipes I've found. Although, sometimes when I'm at the grocery store, I am tempted to buy the often overpriced GF products they carry, just because they carry them there, and it means I don't have to drive an extra 10 minutes to the health food store. I usually resist; I enjoy shopping at the HFS and the Farmer's Market, supporting the local farmers and bakers.
I haven't completely dismissed the Betty Crocker idea, though...I just know that I feel better, and healthier, when I choose wholesome, naturally gluten free foods. They usually taste better too!
90% of the time, I am not opposed to a little work in the kitchen to create a far superior masterpiece than anything that comes from a box. To me, being hungry for an extra half hour after work is worth more than grabbing the nearest packaged meal.
Great *food* for thought!

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Bravo, Pete!! We were given some boxes of gf cereal for our support group meeting tonight. Very generous (and smart) gift from the manufacturer. I just had a bowl of this pretty healthy (whole grains, natural sweetener), but processed food. Now I feel bleck and wish I'd had a green smoothie like I've been having of late for breakfast.

I think it should be "separate, but better" with the focus on whole foods. However, I agree this one is a difficult topic. I know you yourself have spoken of friends making you gluten-free goodies using mixes. I like people having those "mainstream" options especially if they were using gf baking mixes anyway. I prefer to bake gf from scratch (it doesn't have to be hard) myself and not all the time.

Other points: I've had friends buy gf products for me and I've had to say thanks, but no thanks. Even if a gluten-eating friend makes these products for you, that doesn't mean they'll be safe. There's the issue of them baking in a gluten-filled kitchen with baking dishes, wooden spoons, etc. that could well be cross contaminated. If that friend made a gluten cake and the gf cake at the same time, it's unlikely the gf cake is safe. Gluten flour can stay in the air for up to 48 hrs. (Not a myth.) One friend cooks and bakes for me safely, but I don't think I'd trust baking to anyone else.

Many of us can say that going gf was the best thing that ever happened to us, not just because of healing, but because we started looking at food differently ... we started going away from the SAD. And, sadly, there are lots of people consuming the gf equivalent of the SAD and they are not getting better and they don't realize why not.

Final point ... I think I'd really like to see the baking mixes just be good enough to be gf for all. One mix would be all that would be required. Similar to what General Mills has done with most of its Chex cereals (which still make me and others sick, but that's another discussion).

Thanks, Pete! Great post!

peterbronski said...

Hi Emily, Steph and Shirley... thanks for all your insightful comments. As I mentioned in my response to Anonymous, I hadn't considered the perspective of non-GF folks using box mixes to make GF foods for us. That's an excellent point. In fact, last night I was at a friend's house for dinner, and one of the desserts was...appropriately enough...a GF chocolate cake made from a box mix!

I should also say that I didn't mean to come down too heavily on Betty Crocker, or box mixes more generally. By virtue of the timing of the release of BC's new GF box mixes, they became the specific example I used to illustrate a broader point about the changing landscape of GF food.

Steph, your comment reminded me of another valuable role box mixes can play. In the time immediately following a diagnosis and/or switch to the GF diet, there can be a steep learning curve. And box mixes can be a great stepping stone for getting over the front end of that curve. When I first went GF, Kelli and I experimented with a few box mixes - for cake, pizza dough, whatever - to get a handle on GF baking. This was before we had the knowledge or experience to tackle custom GF flour blends and from-scratch GF baking.

Shirley, I like your idea of a universal box mix that is suitable for everyone. Alas, I fear it may never happen... for one, there woul be other dietary restrictions to consider beyond simply gluten. What about people who are casein free? Or soy free? Or corn free? Or whatever? What's more, a universal box mix would have to appeal to the masses, and to do that, it would have to address the lowest common denominator - price. And I think box mix companies will make the convincing argument that GF ingredients costs more than cheap wheat products, and so a glutenous box mix would win out. But we can still hope! =)

Keep the dialogue going, everyone. It's great to hear similar and differing perspectives in the discussion!

Cheers, Pete

Steph said...

I'll admit for myself, I did use quite a bit of boxed goods as a stepping stone when adjusting to the GF diet. But then I realized I didn't need to try and recreate everything that I was missing. I also came up with some from-scratch recipes that I enjoyed better than "normal" food, as I thought of it back then. I also figured out that my body was needing more natural foods, and less processed, for me to feel my best.
I have a cousin trying to make the switch to GF (at the urging of 3 different doctors!!). She currently eats out at least 2 of her 3 meals each day, works part time and has a baby. She seems to think there's no way she can do what I do (bake/cook). I've tried, but I can't convince her...I know she has to be the one to choose to make the diet work for her. So every time I go to the health food store, I will grab a box of something GF for her. I figure, I can help get her kitchen stocked with good, GF alternatives, and then eventually, once she's mastered the transition into GF eating, she can hopefully branch out and try more wholesome, nutritious foods :)
Anyway, that's my 2 cents (plus a few).

dynagrrl said...

Great post, Peter. I don't have full-blown celiac but am wheat intolerant. I think there is a definite benefit to having some "convenience" items in the pantry, but it's also important to try to make more things from scratch or to try and buy ready-made products with ingredients that I recognize. I don't think we have the Betty Crocker mixes in Canada yet, so I can't comment on them. Are they cheaper than the other gfree mixes?

I think the adjustment to a gfree life comes in many forms, and for me, stopping eating the junky processed foods has meant that my food cravings and overall health have improved. But it's all about finding a balance, and if convenience items can help bridge that gap, then I think it's better to have that then to live a life of sickness.

(BTW, I love your blog. Your positive attitude has become a real inspiration for me!)

peterbronski said...

Hi Dynagrrl... Thanks for joining in the discussion! I checked with Betty Crocker consumer services, and unfortunately, the gluten-free baking mixes are not available in Canada. What's more, they have no timeline for rolling them out in Canada, and in the words of the cons service rep with whom I spoke, "I don't know that they're coming here at all." The irony is that the Betty Crocker gluten-free baking mixes are made at a dedicated GF facility IN CANADA! Sheesh.

Cheers, Pete

Kelly said...

Oh thank goodness! Amen for saying what I've been thinking! I don't know what these mixes cost, but I hear a lot of people excited at "cheap gluten-free" food. I offer two cliches: 1) you get what you pay for, and 2) you are what you eat!

peterbronski said...

Hi Kelly... I think that, in general, the Betty Crocker GF mixes cost slightly less than other GF box mixes, but still are more expensive (on average, about $2) than the regular BC baking mixes. And you said it! "You get what you pay for," and "you are what you eat" are two maxims that everyone should learn in school!

Cheers, Pete