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 malt...in 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?