Corporate Gluten-Free foods- Good or Bad?

As further proof that the gluten-free movement (or ‘trend,’ ‘niche,’ or ‘phenomenon,’ if you prefer…) is going mainstream, there was an article published last Sunday (11/25/11) in the New York Times Magazine called Should We All Go Gluten-Free?, much of which was about corporate gluten-free culture, a side of the industry that I haven’t yet paid much attention to.

The article, by Keith O’Brien, discussed the rising awareness of celiac disease, not just in the States but also abroad, but most notably, it profiled a marketing guy for General Mills, who’s using his business acumen and extroversion to reach as wide an audience – or, more specifically, market – as possible.  General Mills is the Minnesota-headquartered corporation responsible for such big-name brands as Yoplait, Pillsbury and Bisquick; popular ‘Big G’ cereals including Cheerios, Lucky Charms, and Wheaties; and, much to my surprise, they also own the high-quality organic protein bar, Lärabar.

While the gist of the article is that General Mills, a producer that reaches masses of customers with its foods (as compared with small gluten-free specialty companies such as Bob’s Red Mill, Enjoy Life and Udi’s), is likely to make a huge impact on gluten-free product consumption, there’s no mention of where they’ll be getting all the ingredients they’re going to need- the corn, the rice, and, yes, the sugar.

photo: theimplusivebuy, Flicrk

Corn Chex and Rice Chex, both cereals that General Mills has adapted to become certified gluten-free, are great-tasting cereals, and each is very low in sugar- just a couple of grams per serving, which is very impressive for a mainstream brand.  But, that said, the amount of corn and rice that GM needs to produce these cereals is immense; so where does it all come from?

I have to presume that, by necessity, GM relies on industrial farming to achieve the levels required for a mainstream market.  That includes the use of pesticides – which they acknowledge using in their 2011 Corporate Social Responsibility Report – and about 10 million cubic meters of water used in 2010.  But at least they’re up front about it, and, if you read through the Environment section of their report (which starts on p. 54), you’ll find that GM appears to want to do good by it, by beginning to implement solar power, wind energy, and striving to reduce their footprint in various ways.

photo: Peter Blanchard, flickr

So, with all that said, is General Mills’ promotion of the corporate gluten-free lifestyle a good thing?  At this point, it simply comes down to two opposing elements:  the widespread and affordable availability of gluten-free foods– from cereal to bread to, as was illustrated in the article, Progresso cream of mushroom soup, on one hand; and on the other, the challenges that come with factory farming, sustainability, and making those kinds of foods available to a growing gluten-sensitive and gluten-free diet-adopting marketplace.

The trade-off is complicated:  do we need to eat gluten-free packaged foods, such as Corn Chex, pasta, or bread?  Of course not.  However, should all of us have free access to these types of foods if we want them?  It seems that indeed we should.  But at what point do our desires conflict with our own longer-term interests of sustainability and the environment?  Right now?  Maybe.

And, finally, who’s keeping an eye out on these sorts of things?  Anyone?  The Cornucopia Institute, my go-to resource for food ratings, is a small, modestly-budgeted organization that tends to stick to products that are geared toward people who are health-conscious to begin with; corporate gluten-free companies like GM are generally beyond their radar.  And so then, as is too often the case, it seems that we as consumers are left to mind the store on our own.  So what is our proper mode of action?  At least for now, it seems to be:  shop as consciously as you can, whatever form that takes.  At least that’s a start.

 

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