Friday, April 20, 2007


This post includes updates based on two customer service callbacks.

As you might have noticed, Starbucks is test marketing Aztec Ancho Chile [sic] Brownies that are labeled as GLUTEN FREE. This is how they look in a display case.

I'm glad that Starbucks is test marketing a gluten-free brownie in NYC. It's heartening to think that a chain as large and popular as Starbucks is showing interest in customers on gluten-free diets. It's exciting to think that I could basically step out of my apartment building and find a gf brownie within a minute, or that at some point I could easily get a gluten-free brownie (or, dare I imagine, gluten-free sandwiches and the like) at an airport, a highway rest stop, or wherever else Starbucks can be found.

That said, I have some comments that I sincerely hope will be taken as helpful by Starbucks and any others interested in marketing gluten-free food.

First: You must be sure that the food is gluten-free at all points in the production process. It should not, for instance, be cross-contaminated in the bakery (as was apparently the case with products from Florida's DeLand Bakery, which were incorrectly marketed as gluten-free for a considerable, confusing, and sickening time). [UPDATE 2 In a second customer service callback from Starbucks, I've been told that, while the brownies are prepared in a facility that processes gluten, measures are taken to prevent cross-contamination and that testing has measured the gluten content of the brownies at less than 20 ppm gluten, which would make it acceptable under many standards, including those currently being considered by the FDA.]

Second: You must make sure that the food does not become contaminated at the point of service, including the display case. In the case of the brownies, this probably means making sure each brownie is individually wrapped, perhaps like these Madelines, which are also sold at Starbucks.

Here is how long-trusted Foods by George packages its individually-wrapped brownies. (I'm sorry about the poor focus, but take my word for it: It's well-wrapped and pretty well-labeled.)

Third: You must make sure the ingredients are clear and available to anyone who is interested in them. I asked a friendly barista about the ingredients, but that person was unable to find that information. Today I called customer service at Starbucks and spoke with a nice customer service representative who couldn't find out the ingredients but told me a specialist would look into the matter. [UPDATE I heard back from Starbucks the evening after I made this post. The ingredients are: sugar, whole eggs, unsalted butter, rice flour, chocolate liqueur, soybean oil, cocoa processed with alkali, corn starch, and less than 2% of each of the following: salt, vanilla extract, and spices (ancho chili powder, chili de arbo powder, and cinnamon).]

Fourth: Consider working with a reputable organization (such as the Washington-based Gluten-Free Certification Organization) to make sure your product will, in fact, be acceptable for people on gluten-free diets.

I am salivating over the prospect of buying gluten-free brownies at Starbucks, but so far I haven't taken the plunge. Yesterday I saw that they seem to arrive in sealed containers--

--but I'm not yet confident that they haven't been cross-contaminated in production or at the point of purchase, where (as pictured near the top of this post) they've typically been shoved amidst a bunch of gluten-containing items. I have little idea of what the ingredients might be--so, basically, the only indication that they're gluten-free is that little sign on the brownie that's being test marketed. [See above update for ingredient list.]

Today wasn't the first day I tried to get more information. Two days ago I phoned Starbucks to learn more and had a good talk with a different nice customer service representative who took my number so that a specialist could call me back with more information. So far I haven't gotten that follow-up call either.

I did learn that, because malt has been discontinued as a Starbucks extra, java chips are officially the only "problem" ingredient in the coffees that could be prepared at the counter. So that's good to know.

Thanks to The New York City Celiac Disease Meetup Group for the lead in the case.

UPDATE 2 I'm told the test marketing of the brownies will continue through mid-May.

It seems to me that the safest way to try the brownie is to either buy them in bulk, in the sealed plastic shell, or to order one out of the sealed plastic shell and watch to make sure no cross-contamination takes place.

Photos: David Marc Fischer


Natalie said...

When I inquired at Starbucks about a few of their baked goods last year sometime, the manager informed me that they outsource the baked goods from local bakeries. In that case, you would have to contact the bakery that made the brownies as well. Not sure if that is still the case...
The awareness of gluten-free by Starbucks is exciting though!

bencappel said...

some pretty cool investigative journalism!

Robert said...

My mom rolled the dice on one at the store in Times Square (43 and Broadway?) when she was in town this weekend and had no reaction. Definitely not a good idea if you're not willing to take the chance.

She loved the brownie, btw.