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Be Careful About Gluten-Free Products that Look Very Similar to The Same Company's Non-GF Products...

This post is long overdue. I've been meaning to share some of our family's near misses -- and one actual "glutening" episode -- for a while. All have been a result of wonderful gluten free products whose packaging just happens to look almost exactly like the same company's non-GF version.  I want others to be aware of these products so we can all be super-vigilant as we rush through our favorite grocery stores quickly loading up our carts with our favorite gluten free staples. I'm also hoping that bringing this blog post to these companies' attention might get them to reconsider their packaging choices. Don't get me wrong...all these companies and their products are favorites of ours, and we are so grateful they have chosen to offer gluten free varieties. But the mistake is easy to make when grocery shopping, and I'm sure our family wasn't the first to experience these "near misses." 

Exhibit #1: Annie's Mac-n-Cheese varieties

Annie's makes some wonderful varieties of mac-n-cheese. They have different shapes of pasta, both yellow and white cheese sauces, gluten free and regular pasta, and even vegan gluten free and non-gluten free varieties. It's easy to think you're grabbing one thing on the store shelf, only to find when you get home that it's not what you wanted. 

Here is one of their gluten free varieties that we buy...

Annie's Rice mac n cheese

And another new variety of gluten free mac-n-cheese we haven't even seen on our store shelves yet...

Annie's quinoa mac n cheese

And a similar-colored box but that isn't gluten free

Annie's regular mac n cheese

Despite the fact that "Gluten Free" is found in two places on the front of the boxes of gluten free varieties, you can see how you might grab the wrong box from the shelf. And check out this gluten free vegan variety...

Annie's vegan GF mac n cheese

It's awfully similar to this non-GF vegan variety. 

Annie's vegan mac n cheeseExhibit #2: Rustic Crust pizza crusts

This was the one time in the 12 years since our son was diagnosed with Celiac Disease that we knew he was "glutened." And it was my fault. I had purchased these Rustic Crust gluten free pizza crusts several times from a local market specializing in natural and organic foods (and with an impressive selection of gluten free products, too). 

Rustic Crust GF pizza crust

Little did I realize, they have many varieties, and this store happened to sell several others right next to where I'd always found the gluten free ones. I inadvertently grabbed this one...

Rustic Crust flatbread

When it came time to prepare the pizza for my son (this was a couple years ago, and fortunately, it was on a snow day when school was cancelled), I didn't notice that I'd purchased a non-GF version. However, in hindsight, I probably should have suspected something was off when I noticed the crust didn't crumble quite as easily as the gluten free variety when I handled it. I made the pizza, my son ate the whole thing (it's a "personal size"), and off he went to play in the snow at a friend's house. Lo and behold, about an hour later, I received a call from the mom, who is a good friend of mine, letting me know my son was sick and vomiting in the bathroom. I told her I'd be right over to pick him up. 

The first thing to go through my mind was...did he eat something with gluten? No, I thought to myself. He's been home all day, up until an hour ago. What he ate for breakfast and lunch was safe. I fixed it. Did he eat something he shouldn't have at his friend's house? No, I told myself. He is so good about checking on any product when he isn't sure if it's gluten free. If he can't find information online, he'll call me to ask -- or just "not risk it," opting to have something he knows he can eat. Then what could it be? Maybe he's just got a stomach bug, unrelated to Celiac, I tried to reassure myself.

Then, as I hopped in my car to go pick him up on the other side of our neighborhood, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Was the pizza crust gluten free? Could there have been a similarly packaged variety that wasn't gluten free? 

I arrived at my friend's house, and I asked her if my son had eaten anything since arriving at her house. No, he hadn't. He was looking a bit pale but the vomiting had subsided. I took him right home. Once inside, I opened the kitchen trash can to look at the packaging from the pizza. Sure enough. First ingredient: wheat flour. I flipped the package over to look at the front. No mention of gluten free. My stomach literally dropped. I felt so incredibly awful.  But clearly not as awful as my son was feeling. 

Here I was, his mother, who had checked every ingredient label on everything I'd bought for him to eat for over 10 years, talked to every restaurant we dined at, educated relatives when visiting, and sent in special GF treats for school celebrations...all to keep him safe. And here I was...the one who glutened him!  And since he'd never been sick with any sort of stomach, intestinal, or vomiting issue in all the 10 years, I didn't know how he would react. Judging from what I'd heard from other Celiacs over the years, it could mean a week of misery. I braced myself for the worst. 

Fortunately, his vomiting subsided (I think he'd gotten most of the pizza out of his system at his friend's house). Th fogginess and lethargy only lasted about 24 hours, if even that. And although I was frustrated with the company, I knew the ultimate responsibility fell on me. I should have paid more attention to the packaging. You can't assume something that looks similar to what you've purchased in the past is the exact same GF product. I think part of the problem, too, is that many stores place the GF versions of products right next to the regular versions of the same brand. While there many be advantages to this (seeing that a former favorite product has a GF version), it can be confusing, especially if they look similar. That was the case with a near-miss we had just this past summer, the day we were leaving for a trip to Italy. 

Exhibit #3: Applegate Farms breaded chicken nuggets

Knowing we'd be boarding a red-eye flight with a requested gluten free meal that is never a 100% certainty, I thought our son should have a decent lunch before we left the house. I put some of these in the toaster oven to bake...the gluten free chicken nuggets from Applegate Farms that we always buy, often in this family-sized resealable bag.

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 5.17.01 PMSince there weren't enough left in the bag for both of our hungry, growing boys (our non-Celiac son loves them, too), I reached for another bag I'd just purchased a few days before at the grocery store. I dumped some of those on the tray to cook with the others, thinking they were all the same. It wasn't until our Celiac son sat down to eat his that he noticed some nuggets looked slightly different from the others. He asked, as he occasionally does, after the aforementioned "glutening incident"..."Mom, are these gluten free?" I actually remember making a joke about it...of course they were gluten free...they're the same ones you eat all the time! 

But he said they looked different. Admittedly, I was a bit frustrated in my rush to get out the door to leave on our trip. But I took a close look, and he was right. It then dawned on my that the new bag of nuggets that I'd reached for after finishing off the other bag must be Applegate Farms' regular variety. I had that dreaded sense of deja vu until I learned that he hadn't eaten anything yet. I checked the bag that I'd put back in the freezer, and sure enough...the family-size, resealable bag of regular chicken nuggets looked almost identical to the gluten free one. On the day of a departure on an international trip, that was one of many times I thanked God my son is so careful and observant...and speaks up! Let's just say that would not have been a good plane ride or start of our journey.

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 5.12.56 PM

Fortunately, it now looks like the company has changed to this packaging for the family-size gluten free nuggets.  

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 5.14.40 PM

But looking at Applegate Farms' website, I'm wondering if all their products, including their family-size bag of regular nuggets will eventually change to this green packaging, too, as all their new packaging for breaded chicken products seems to share this design. Case in point, check out the smaller boxes of both the regular and GF chicken nuggets. You can see how one could get confused

Have you had any similar mix-ups? If so, please share the brands in a comment below so that we can all be on the lookout. I'll be contacting these brands with a link to this Blog post. Hopefully, they'll consider making it easier to differentiate their various product lines in the future.