Thursday, December 3, 2009

Little (Tea) Shop of Horrors

By now I've been around the gluten-free block enough times that I know you'll find gluten in a surprising number of places, in foods you wouldn't normally expect it to be in. And yet, I still have moments of amazement, such as when we went to a local sports pub to catch a football game on the big screen, and I was informed that the hamburgers (not the bun) were not gluten-free because wheat gluten was used as a binding agent in the patties. Really? What happened to the days when a burger was made from 100% ground beef?

I recently had another such moment when a number of gluten-free foodies independently addressed the blogosphere with revelations that their favorite brands of tea (tea!) had varieties that were not gluten-free. Woe is me! Mind you, the tea isn't the problem. It's what's added to the tea to make elaborate flavors that cause the problem.

One example is Celestial Seasonings. The company has added a quite useful informational table to each tea's web page. Check out the page for Sleepytime, Celestial's all-time, number one best-seller, to see what I mean. The table contains a list of ingredients, a link to nutritional info, the tea's "gluten status," its caffeine status, and its Kosher certification. At first, I had a hard time finding any teas that weren't gluten-free. I felt like I had browsed the entire line, and it all seemed gluten-free, when I stumbled into the Special Occasion - Holiday Teas. There I found the culprits... teas such as Gingerbread Spice and Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride were NOT gluten-free. Why? They contained barley or barley a tea.

For a second example, we can look to Bigelow Tea. The company conveniently and concisely lists its gluten-free and gluten-ous teas on a single page here. The three offending teas - Blueberry Harvest, Chamomile Mango, and Cinnamon Spice - all contain barley malt. However, Bigelow says that they "when tested, showed no results for gluten." So what's a gluten-free tea drinker to do? It'd be helpful to know what test they performed, and how accurate and precise the test was, before making a decision as to whether to try such a tea or not. Even so, to Bigelow's credit, they've disclosed the info, so that gluten-free tea drinkers erring on the side of caution can make a conservative decision.

Lastly (for this post), check out Tazo Tea. In the FAQ section of the website, they list the teas that are NOT gluten-free: Green Ginger, Tazo Honeybush, Lemon Ginger, and Tea Lemonade. Here the plot thickens. Take Green Ginger. Its ingredients list doesn't list any obviously offending ingredients. I'm forced to conclude that the gluten is contained in the "natural flavors," without knowing what exactly that means. Then there's the Tea Lemonade. The website doesn't list the ingredients for this one, so I can't analyze it. The Lemon Ginger and Tazo Honeybush don't offer much insight, either...except for the company telling us they're not gluten-free.

The lesson learned is a familiar one. Even foods (or drinks) that we think are a home run for gluten-free status sometimes turn out not to be. Yet again, it pays to read labels and check with companies.

And of course, there's the omnipresent concern about cross-contamination. I've toured the Celestial Seasonings plant, and I've seen the enormous sacks of different herbs and spices and tea leaves stored on gigantic racks in one large warehouse where cross-contamination during processing could be a concern. Truthfully, tea companies should probably describe their teas as being "free of gluten-containing ingredients," and also include some disclosure statement about the (probably small) possibility for cross-contamination. Of course, as I've written before, such advisory labeling is currently not required under FDA guidelines (though that will hopefully change soon...).

Now who's up for a spot o' tea?

- Pete


hoopyscoopsmom said...

I am off to check my pantry for gluten in my teas, who would have thought! I have a question, I take a vitamin supplement, that contains oat bran. I took the supplement based on my practitioners advice, him knowing I am gluten intolerant. When discovering the oat bran, I contacted the company and they said they test with ELISA and they fall under the 20 ppm. So does that make it safe for celiac sufferers? I know there is still something in my diet that is offending, I am still getting tummy troubles. I wonder if that could be the problem. Thank you so much for your help and your blog. I am asking for your cookbook for Christmas, and since I do the christmas shopping I think I might just it under the tree Christmas morning!!!

peterbronski said...

Hi Hoopyscoopsmom... Generally speaking, ELISA is a widely accepted test for gluten, and 20ppm is the international CODEX standard/threshold for gluten-free certification. In theory, if your vitamins come in below that threshold, they can be considered gluten-free. Have a wonderful holiday season, and enjoy the cookbook!

Cheers, Pete

Amanda on Maui said...

I am a big tea drinker, and a friend of mine runs a coffee store here and knows all about tea too and wants to turn me into a tea conoisseur. I drink multiple cups of tea a day, and the flavors vary based on my mood.

Right now I'm drinking some unsmoked Yerba Mate to get me energized for my day ahead.

I've said to Celestial Seasonings and Bigelow, on Facebook, that they should find a substitute for the barley malt. They could use rice instead.

I raise my cup of tea to you and yours.

Simple Sweet(tea) said...


I work for a loose leaf tea company called The Tea Spot. We handblend all of our own teas and I'm happy to report that they're all gluten free! We also have a ton of recipes that add tea which brings new flavors to the dish. I'm sure you could add loose leaf tea (or the tea liquor) to your recipes as well!

Simple Sweet(tea)

peterbronski said...

Hey Amanda... So, I'd be curious to know. What types of tea do you like to pair with different moods? I love Yerba Mate. In Bolivia, I got hooked on the Tri Mate teas, but alas those aren't imported to the U.S. Grr...

Hey Simple Sweet(tea)... Very glad to know that all of your teas are gluten-free! I actually interviewed two people at your company for a story about tea I have coming out in the Jan issue of Denver Magazine. Stay tuned!

Cheers, Pete

Jake said...

That was a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing! Articles like this keep my updated with the current situations in our society or different body of knowledge that a human must know especially about medicine specifically about vitamins and health related topics. I admire you guys for sharing your post.

Kosher Vitamins

Amanda on Maui said...

All of Rishi's teas are gluten free.

peterbronski said...

Hi Amanda... Thanks for the FYI!

Cheers, Pete