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Confused about gluten free products...

I'm bringing desserts to a holiday party and have been asked to make some of them gluten free.

I picked out a GF peanut butter cookie recipe (from a GF site) and also a flourless chocolate cake.

So, I go food shopping to get PB and find that there is one deemed GF but my old standby Jif isn't denoted as such even though the ingredients are the same...so I buy the GF one and look for GF baking chocolate and GF cocoa but can't find any even though it seems as though both of these products (just like PB) should "naturally" be GF.

So I come home to Google these products and it seems like even some GF sites say stuff like "semi sweet chocolate" in their recipes as opposed to "GF semisweet chocolate"..

What's the deal? Is it just that some of these "naturally" GF products are made in plants that may not be GF? Or do I need to specifically look for GF baking chocolate and GF cocoa?

I'm obviously committed to making sure that no one falls ill from my offerings so I'm not reluctant to seek these products out if I need to...I just want to know how to proceed.

TIA! Sara

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  1. Many companies do not want to "commit" to labeling their products gluten free because then they are certifying that they come from a dedicated gluten free kitchen or plant and they then take on the liability. My husband has celiac and there are many, many products that are naturally gluten free that he eats without problem...peanut butter and semi-sweet chocolate being among them. We rely on the ingredient list...and then make sure there's no disclaimer about the food being processed in a facility that also processes wheat. Your best bet, in my opinion, is to make sure you are knowledgeable about ingredients where there could be "hidden" gluten--ie modified food starch--no good--modified corn or potato starch are fine--and then take a good look at the ingredients list in anything you use.

    1. I'm not celiac but have three friends who are. Apparently yes, there are many products with no ingredient that includes gluten but the product is made in plant with shared equipment. A food can't label itself "gluten free" unless it's been tested by a certain org that grants its logo after testing, although many products label themselves gluten free without the logo. It's a big production, lots of $$ to get certified, much like it's a hassle to become certified organic, and sometimes you can't get certified not because of your practices but because your land is too close to the property or water of someone who uses chemicals.

      A gluten intolerance is not the same as, say, a peanut or shellfish allergy--it won't cause an acute response and doesn't require an epi-pen or a run to the emergency room or time spent hunched over a toilet. Rather, the gluten causes an inflammation in the digestive system which in turns causes both malabsorbtion of nutrients as well as possibly other auto immune disorders. These response take a long, long time to develop, and most celiacs have been eating gluten for a long time before being diagnosed. They must avoid gluten to avoid further damage to their bodies but the inadvertent ingestion won't cause a violent physical reaction. all three of my friends figure they're ingesting gluten somehow, anyway--they all have live with family members who aren't gluten intolerant and share some cooking utensils, serving dishes, etc. (They do have separate toasters and other things that would "catch and hold" gluten.) One has his blood tested twice a year (he is also Type I and Type II, has been very conscious of his diet for years) and as long as his markers are low, he and his doctor are OK with it. He doesn't think it's possible to carry zero blood markers for gluten, at least not living in the US.

      My solution is to do the best I can with using GF ingredients, being careful to minimize cross-contamination during prep (only use utensils right out of the dishwasher, don't wipe anything with a dish towel), and shoe or bring the ingredients lists of everything so that they can make their own decisions. Wooden spoons are a problem--I bought a new one and marked it. Also, I'd open a new jar of PB rather than using an already-open jar in my fridge because I know that I've dipped knives into the jar and spread the PB on toast.

      I did my annual holiday party this year with a completely GF menu except beer and ginger cookies. I didn't announce it and so had to watch other guests as they came in to make sure that they didn't accidentally cross contaminate the GF foods, which BTW were in a diff room from the cookies and baked goods that others had brought. One guest was about to open a box of crackers into the basket of GF crackers. If that had happened, I would have corralled that basket and gotten out a new one and filled it with "fresh" GF crackers--I purposely bought a ton so that there would be enough for whatever anyone brought, plus enough in case I had to replace cross-contaminated ones.

      6 Replies
      1. re: Erika L

        What you wrote about "A gluten intolerance is not the same as, say, a peanut or shellfish allergy--it won't cause an acute response and doesn't require an epi-pen or a run to the emergency room or time spent hunched over a toilet." caught my attention. Primarily because one of the elders I cook for has a gluten intolerance that comes pretty close to what I'd describe as an acute response. Her response to gluten is a population of large painful welts all over her body and an unceasing severe itching that lasts up to two weeks. The itch alone is, as she describes it, "enough to cause one to consider suicide". There are many levels of gluten intollerance and there is no first aid for Celiac disease. While an epi-pen may not be needed, we need to guard against cavalier attitudes about the disease

        1. re: Erika L

          I have to contradict you...my husband definitely has what I would call a "violent physical reaction" and it's pretty immediate if he's been contaminated...an hour or so at best. And while it's not immediately life-threatening, as some allergies can be, it definitely does him damage each time he's contaminated and takes him several days to regain his strength.

          1. re: mom22tots

            Sorry for the confusion, I clearly still need education about all the variations of celiac. None of my three friends who has been diagnosed as celiac has an acute allergic reaction. They do, though, have auto-immune disorders (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis). I've learned what I know from the three of them, and their symptoms obviously don't represent the range of celiac responses.

            1. re: Erika L

              I certainly did not mean to attack you. It's just that there is so much misconception out there right now about gluten intolerance and there are many people who have decided to cut out gluten for non-medical reasons--it's becoming more difficult to be taken seriously when we order at restaurants or travel b/c the gluten free diet has suddenly become in vogue.

              1. re: Erika L

                "I've learned what I know from the three of them, and their symptoms obviously don't represent the range of celiac responses."
                and therein lies one of the reasons why Celiac and gluten intolerance are so difficult to diagnose. plus, people's symptoms and sensitivity can change over time. i wasn't diagnosed until i was 35, and for all those years prior, my Celiac manifested itself as general digestive distress and nutrient malabsorption (thanks to intestinal damage from a lifetime of ingesting gluten). however, since going GF several years ago my body is no longer desensitized to the protein, and now if i eat something that contains gluten, i experience a range of severe physical symptoms - blisters in my mouth, a skin rash, debilitating cramps, migraines - within an hour or so.

                anyway, despite the misunderstanding, your concern for the health & safety of your friends and guests is commendable - the effort you put forth to protect them goes far beyond what many people are willing to do.

                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  Agreed. While the idea of causing lasting damage is scary, it's the debilitating gastro and neurological symptoms that cause me to not cheat on the GF diet.

                  Also, to ErikaL - What you do to watch out for your friends is great. I wish some of mine were willing to do that for me!

          2. Thank you both so much for your responses. You have helped a great deal!


            1. Also, some factories put flour on their conveyor belts to prevent items from sticking to it so even though the item itself does not have flour it's placed on a surface which does or may have had it for a previous run.

              Peanut butter is generally fine. I've not seen a GF branded PB to be honest. It's also easy to make a simple GF pb cookie without using any complicated flours either (1 cup PB, 1 egg, 1 cup sugar).

              Flourless chocolate cakes are also a great option since they are naturally flourless and you don't have to mess with anything unusual.

              I did make World Peace cookies GF and they were great the first two days. Many recipes can be converted to GF without too much hassle but you need a good all purpose GF flour mix. Ideally it'll contain several types of GF flours to balance out the flavors and textures they produce.

              Most celiacs I know will buy just regular cocoa and chocolate after they've read the ingredients. It doesn't have to be labeled GF but it should say whether or not it contains wheat. If worried you can talk to the GF people in the group and explain what you used so that they can make their own decision on whether or not to eat them.

              Another GF option for a sweet treat is date ball cookies. They are made with rice krispies which are easy to find and labeled GF.

              4 Replies
              1. re: eperdu

                The date ball cookies sound great but please be aware that Kellogg Rice Krispies are not gluten free: they contain malt flavoring, which is derived from barley. There are GF varieties of rice krispies available, so make sure to check to see that they are labeled as such.

                Good luck.

                1. re: eperdu

                  What kind of flour or flour blend did you use for the World Peace cookies? I've been meaning to make those for a while.

                  1. re: whitneybee

                    whitney, i haven't tried this recipe from GFG myself, but the photos look wonderful and you can usually trust Shauna to get it right :)


                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                      Thank you so much for this! I can't wait to try them.

                2. Just to give you some joy, as the mother of a celiac daughter, now adult, who is also allergic to corn products, I have learned to adapt/hunt for GF recipes with GREAT SUCCESS.

                  That PB cookie recipe that calls only for PB, sugar, egg, chopped peanuts and suggests chocoloate chips as an add-in and a dusting of sea-salt? it is simply the BEST PB cookie recipe ever. It also works well without the chocolate chips...just add a few more peanut bits. Any decent organic PB will do.

                  There are also a multitude of recipes using ground flour, almond flour and white rice flour that are terrific.

                  Then there is a chocolate pie with silken tofu that I use with a ground almond/butter/sugar crust that is simply heaven.

                  Nigella Lawson's Clementine Cake? great for GF/ celiacs!

                  My point is that you can find/develop a file of recipes that work for this purpose. The key is the simpler the better and it is WAY better to find a recipe that does NOT call for Xanthum gum or fava bean meal (or some other hard to find, wildly expensive item) in the first place. It is also better to avoid the chocolate chips you are not sure of in favour of a hunk of good pure chocolate that you break up yourself.

                  The info that others have included here is really useful and there are some great GF websites. Exercise caution for sure (don't use the same stick of butter you got toast crumbs on this am for the PB cookies in the pm!) Your friend(s) is/are not just being picky: They live with a daily challenge and you are a wonderful pal to care enough to cook for them

                  1. Not everything is listed GF. Some is marketing and as others mentioned, it could be they can not guarantee GF. There are bunches of GF baking mixes on the market. King Arthur and Betty Crocker both make cake mixes and cookie mixes that are GF. Those might be easier options for someone not well versed in GF cooking and could be the basis of cupcakes, cakes etc.

                    I am glad your trying to accommodate. I have a somewhat severe wheat intolerance that can make my throat swell up, or make me ill for days. I have people poo-poo this medical problem and feed me wheat containing products after telling me they were not. I ended up very sick that night and for the next two days. I tried to find a rice krispy treat at Starbucks (I can handle the malt extract, barley doesn't bother me as bad as wheat). The person at the register automatically assumed I was on a GF fad diet and went on about all the people at the health food store she also worked at were doing it. There really isn't an easy way to educate someone about how wrong that is in the brief time at a counter.

                    1. as several others have already stated, cocoa powder and chocolate are two of the ingredients that are *usually* safe. if you're really concerned about using a certified GF product, buy Dagoba chocolate and cocoa powder...or go the slightly less extreme route and buy a product that DOESN'T have a disclaimer on the package that says it was processed in a facility that processes wheat or gluten.

                      and yes, your initial instinct was correct - unless the PB is a gourmet or specialty product that contains some sort of mix-in, PB is naturally GF (of course the standard rules apply in terms of cross-contamination risks in processing facilities).

                      oh, and just in case eperdu's suggestion for those date balls inspires you, look for Erewhon brand Crispy Rice cereal - it's certified GF.

                      1. Thank you again everyone...the help here has just been so amazing!

                        For the person who asked the GF PB that I bought (prior to posting and learning so much!) is Smart Balance.


                        1. Just to close the loop, the party was this weekend. I made GF peanut butter cookies and David Lebovitz's chocolate idiot cake. The PB cookies were ok but I don't think I would go out of my way to make them again. They were kind of dry (I don't think I overbaked them but maybe I did?). They did seem to improve over time. They might also have been better if I had used a different PB.

                          The chocolate idiot cake was absolutely fantastic. I tend to be overwhelmed by pure chocolate desserts but this was very, very delicious and definitely something I will make again.


                          5 Replies
                          1. re: owen_meany

                            What kind of chocolate did you use for the cake, and did you serve it with anything?

                            1. re: mom22tots

                              I used Scharffen Berger semi sweet. I served it with whipped cream (just whipping cream and a bit of vanilla).

                            2. re: owen_meany

                              try these PB cookies next time:

                              or if you want to post the recipe you used, we can help you figure out if it was insufficient liquid or over- baking that caused them to turn out dry.

                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                I will definitely try the recipe you posted! Thanks for the suggestion. (The recipe I used was gluten free girl's)

                                1. re: owen_meany

                                  the proportions in Shauna's recipe are correct. either you left them in too long, or your oven temp is off - a common culprit! you might want to check it with a thermometer.