Sunday, January 23, 2011

Snarky Post: Gluten Free and Quality

The gluten free market is absolutely huge right now, and seems to be growing at a non-stop rate. Businesses both large and small are jumping on the gluten free bandwagon -- how hard can it be to make gluten free food? It seems like, without very much research at all, they substitute white rice flour for wheat flour, add a bit of xanthan or guar gum, slap a price sticker about 5x the original cost on it, stand back and say, Voila! A gluten free product for you to buy.

That's all well and good - as long as the gluten free food is palatable. All too often, I've spent $7 on some bread product to find it absolutely completely unpalatable. I can blame myself for that a lot of the time, but what really bugs me is when these sub-par products have glowing reviews online. "This is the first time I've had a bagel in 20 years!" ... But it's the size of one of my elastic hair ties with the consistency and taste of cardboard.

Really??? People - please, stop buying disgusting food just because it is there!

Of course, there are a (small) number of wonderful gluten free companies that produce products we absolutely love. When that happens, we're more than happy to shell out $5, $7, or more for a package of pasta that tastes like "regular" pasta, bread with the light, chewy consistency of the packaged breads we bought before going gluten free, convenience foods, etc. In part, this post is for these companies -- how they could add even more products to the foods we already buy and love.

With that said -- I've noticed a few big deficiencies in the gluten free market. If a company would nail one or more of these, and produce good tasting, high quality products -- they would be worth their weight in gold.

  • Saltine Crackers. Sure, we have gluten free crackers out there. Some of them aren't so bad (my husband is partial to Schar's snack crackers for cheese, and I'm a fan of the wonderful texture of Asian rice crackers). However, when you're sick with a stomach bug, nothing beats these wonderful, light, salty cracker in your soup. We already have chicken soup (mainstream chicken and rice soups, or chicken noodle available from wonderful companies like Kettle Cuisine). Jell-O and Ginger Ale are already gluten free. Someone needs to make a salty, bland, saltine-like cracker and we'll be all set.
  • Good Chinese and Japanese Food. We've had good experiences eating gluten free at Thai, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, but Japanese and Chinese restaurants can leave a lot to be desired. Sure, some local Japanese restaurants carry gluten free soy sauce for their sushi, but why is P.F. Chang's the only restaurant in our area to realize "Hey! If I substitute gluten free soy sauce for these dishes, gluten free diners have a whole heck of a lot more choices?" Teriyaki sauce, eel sauce for sushi, ginger dressing - all of them contain gluten only because of soy sauce. I'm not asking Japanese and Chinese restaurants to use rice flour for tempura or sweet and sour meat breading here (though that would be awesome), but if you offered a gluten free menu of more than just plain sushi rolls or bland steamed food with no seasonings, you'd certainly have my business. And all the friends and family I brought in. And I'd sure shout for joy about it online. Just saying.
  • Wraps. Now -- certainly, companies make tortilla shells. We've bought corn tortillas for Mexican food (wonderfully authentic), and for sandwiches we've tried various brands of shells made from brown rice flour, teff, etc. All are extremely disappointing - they're so brittle, they break immediately. Not only that, but the consistency (especially of brown rice tortillas) tends to be a bit rubbery and leaves a lot to be desired. It would be wonderful to be able to buy a soft, fluffy, tasty wrap for sandwiches once in a while.
  • Breakfast Convenience Foods. OK, OK. I admit: I don't cook all the time. In the morning, sometimes I'll pop a breakfast sandwich in the microwave to take with me to work. It's much more quick than pouring a bowl of cereal, putting waffles in the toaster, making eggs, etc. It's also more portable than my standard breakfast of yogurt and an orange (I'd be a hazard on the road if I ate that on the Thruway!) My husband loves to do that as well, but so far the only food that he's found are Ian's Wafflewich egg sandwiches - he loves them, and can just pop one in the microwave when he's in a hurry. They're hard to find, though (The only store I can find them in around here is Uncle Sam's in Latham), and let's be honest - only one choice can get tiring. If more companies made readily accessible bagel or english muffin sandwiches that held up, tasted good, and could be easily microwaved, it would be a big plus. Even more of a bonus if they were high-fiber and protein to fill someone up in the morning!
I think this list provides some very real needs in the gluten free market.

What about you? What gluten free products do you see a niche market for? Do you think any of my requests/complaints are already satisfactorily addressed?


eslachtdermai said...

I full heartedly agree with every word you said! I have friends who text me all the time saying "hey, I found this should try it!" They have never eaten a thing that is GF, and they think they're doing a great service to me, but when I do try it, it's absolutely disgusting and I wasted an extra $10 at the grocery store. Absolutely adore Ian's (though I disagree about the breakfast sandwiches...think they're rather disgusting and rubbery.) And I truly do wish that more Chinese and Japanese restaurants would make the simple switches, as well as other restaurants. Two items that involve me making a million changes to get them to be gluten free, thus cutting down on any flavor that was originally there, on your restaurant menu does not make up a GF menu! The revolution needs to start somewhere, and I applaud you for making this post! (Not to mention, I love all of your others.)

mnms said...

I want to see gluten free puff pastry! I know that some bloggers have figured out how to make it GF, but it is a lot of work! And gluten free egg noodles would be lovely.

mjdolce said...

I agree with everything here, and laughed when I read what eslachtdermai posted about friends who aren't gluten-free recommending products. I've had very well-meaning family members buy bread for when I come to visit, and desperately wish they would check with me before they buy a brand I know is awful. Because once I'm there, and they present it like the holy grail that they found, I always feel horribly guilty not eating it. But I guess that's why we have to keep educating people. And, like you said in your post, keep begging our gluten-free friends to stop buying awful products just because they are there.

This goes with your breakfast desires -- but I'd love to see gluten free granola bars (ala Quaker breakfast bars).

Paul said...

I couldn't agree more, it amazes me how much some products cost when you know darn well there's absolutely nothing special about them except the GF sticker ... thank you for sharing this great read!