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GFT @ WFM

Alongside a trio of coeliac bloggers, Alex Gazzola tries out the Whole Foods Market’s Gluten Free Tour.

One of the many good things about Whole Foods Market’s Gluten Free Tour is that it even exists. I’d spotted the sign advertising it at the Kensington store’s Restaurant Venues on the first floor of the Barkers Building which the store occupies on Kensington High Street, London. A tour? Of the store? Focusing on gluten-free? It seemed unfeasible, even in these gluten-aware times. I made enquiries.

Wholefoods

Studies suggest that those following restricted diets take longer to do their food shopping. Albeit a decade old, a Food Standards Agency nut / peanut shopping study from 2002, published in the Agency’s report, ‘May Contain’ Labelling – A Consumer’s Perspective, found that nut / peanut allergic consumers took 39% longer to shop. The charity Allergy UK say that shopping for allergic children is similarly time consuming – 40% more so according to their surveys. No such research has been conducted with gluten-free shoppers, say Coeliac UK, but anecdotally we know that many, especially the newly diagnosed, can take hours to complete a ‘safe’ weekly shop. Could a store-awareness tour be the time-saving answer?

WFM market the Tour as a ‘personalised discovery tour’, and sometimes advertise it on their Facebook page and Twitter stream. In Kensington, it is offered by Krystal, their American nutritionist, whom I arranged to meet together with well-known coeliac bloggers – Carly (Gluten Free B), Caleigh (Gluten Freek) and Sian (Gluten Free Mrs D). (Check the WF site for tour details in their Cheltenham and Glasgow branches.) She greeted us with goodie bags– all those taking the tour receive them – with two unusual sample products from a Dutch brand called Consenza, which I’d never before come across, and off we went.

We started at breads, immediately on the right as you enter the store proper – a small selection of pre-packed dense breads there, positioned on the top shelf, above rye breads and the like, but not delineated or clearly identified – and then moved to fresh produce downstairs.

It became clear that Krystal would be offering some nutritional, recipe and cooking advice, which I liked. She stressed the importance of variety in a restricted diet – lots of colours – and the need for fibre and starch in the absence or reduction of grains, as well as experimentation: seed sprouts, sweet potatoes, cabbage wraps, feta quinoa peppers…

WholefoodsKrystal at work

I learned a lot. Pre-packed organic grains and seeds are subject to stricter cross-contamination protocols than their non-organic counterparts, so free-frommers may be advised to plump for organic GF options to further reduce the small risk of low-level gluten traces. Krystal further recommended soaking grains and nuts – not specifically, as I’d imagined, to wash away any potential surface contamination, but for reasons to do with enzymes and digestibility.

There was one sticking point. Krystal appeared to endorse eliminating dairy where there was a self-suspected intolerance, and then self-diagnosis if symptomatic improvement followed, on the uncertain basis that casein is a very similar molecule to gluten. I assumed this stemmed from the theory of potential cross-reactions with respect to non-gluten proteins among coeliacs – a controversial area, popular among the grain-free movement. This, to me, remains as yet unproven, and self-diagnoses and eliminations can lead to other problems – reduced enzyme production (eg lactase), for instance, or difficulties with orthodox diagnoses.

Previously, free-from foods were stocked solely alongside their ‘containing’ counterparts in the store, and while this remains so for many products, a relatively new free-from aisle has recently been introduced, meaning many are now located in two areas of the store: a sensible solution for those benefiting from and preferring core staples in one location, and for those who want to shop ‘normally’, but include ‘free from’ options.

WholefoodsThe aisle boasts huge variety, with many unfamiliar-to-us US brands: cereal products from Bakery on Main, Bob’s Red Mill, Eat Natural, Alara and others; pastas from Orgran (a boggling array), Doves Farm, Rizopia and Biona; biscuits and snack bars from TruFree, Nak’d, Dr Lucy’s and Against the Grain. Over in the freezer cabinets, Amy’s Kitchen dominated ready-meals, and gluten and dairy free desserts from Bessant and Drury, Booja Booja and Swedish Glace offered an impressive selection.

There is another treat / snack
section devoted to more niche ‘free from’ brands back upstairs on ground floor, and opposite the breads. These included Sugargrain, Crayve, Btempted, Bounce, Perkier and Rebel Bakery.

Before joining Krystal and the bloggers, I’d met with WFM’s Michael Weber, Head of UK Purchasing and Distribution, who’d told me that such niche, smaller brands dovetailed well with the company’s ethos, and that they were keen to encourage them – indeed, Knead Bakery were launching five of their products in store in the week after we visited. Successful partnerships are forged both via speculative approaches by ‘free from’ brands and active scouting by WFM buyers. They will advise and work with new producers too: it was their Head of Bakery Peter Gialantzis who encouraged Perkier to ‘stack’ some of their treat products in transparent packaging, in order to offer an appealing USP…  

“We’ll consider anyone”, in Michael’s words, but as might be expected from a store priding itself on wholefood, wider and stricter ‘free from’ standards apply: their Unacceptable Ingredients for Food section outlining which ingredients all their stocked products are free from, including artificial colours, flavours and sweeteners, benzoates, and high-fructose corn syrup. (It’s worth pointing out too that their food allergy section refers to the US market and US law, and is inappropriate for the UK, a situation I was told would be remedied this spring.)

In summary, I’d say it’s important to remember that the tour is billed as a GF tour not a coeliac tour – there were one or two occasions when non-GF ranges were pointed out to us, such as Inspiralled, which are wheat-free only and positioned alongside GF brands.

Krystal had told us that the tour was popular with those new to the country, especially Antipodeans, and those newly diagnosed. We were a party boasting three established coeliacs, and all of us were familiar with the store to varying degrees, and as useful as we found it, other individuals may derive far greater benefit.

I liked that there was no apparent bias towards particular brands, with smaller, artisanal brands getting equal ‘billing’ to the bigger guys. Krystal was confident, seamless and good company. I wasn’t bored for a moment; I don’t think any one of us was.

It’s a great idea, one which I hope is copied and adapted by other stores and supermarkets – although as my fellow GF ‘tourist’ Carly has already rightly observed, it would need to be done with input from, say, patient charities. I’d add that measures would also need to be implemented to maintain impartiality and avoid a situation where guides might have a vested interest in promoting certain brands over others, or indeed an imbalanced weighting towards heavily processed and ready-made foods over from-scratch GF cooking. Krystal managed this perfectly, but it is less of an issue in a health food store such as WFM – potentially far more so in a more popular and multi-national supermarket where products of dubious nutritional quality sit alongside healthier fare.

Wholefoods
The Bloggers.....

WFM Kensington’s gluten-free tour lasts around 45 minutes and is by prior arrangement. To enquire about available slots, contact kensington@wholefoods.com. For other branches in London, Cheltenham and Glasgow, contact the relevant branch direct through the WFM website here.

March 2013

 

 

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