Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Myopathies and Celiac Disease

I encountered this article a couple days ago about the Possible Relationship Between Myopathies And Celiac Disease. The University of Barcelona (UAB, Spain) has been doing some research into inflammatory myopathies (immunological diseases that lead to inflammations in muscular tissue), and in doing so they are investigating the relationship between myopathy and intolerance to gluten.

In general, little is known about the cause of these inflammatory myopathies, but it is believed to be an abnormal immune response by our bodies. And, since celiac disease has occasionally been reported in patients with inflammatory myopathies, they decided to further investigate whether or not there is any type of connection.

This quote pretty much summarizes what the research team has gained from this study:
"The scientists are considering the possibility that, at least in part, some inflammatory myopathies are a clinical expression of intolerance to gluten, though they point out the need for more studies to be carried out to confirm or support these findings."
I am personally not at all surprised by this conclusion. It seems that something is definitely out of kilter in our bodies already, since we can not tolerate gluten, and thus any associated findings like this do not seem too hard to believe.

The article left me to wonder if this is the type of general "inflammation" that is helped by Omega-3 fatty acids, like you would get from Wild Alaskan Salmon. The article talked about testing immunosuppressants, but made no mention (aside from how a gluten-free diet probably helps) about other dietary alternatives or additions that may be helpful. I would think that the fish oils and Flax Seed, Walnuts, etc (all high in helpful Omegas) would be useful, since they are supposed to be good for inflammation in general. Maybe they will address that in a future study. In the mean time, it surely can't hurt to eat these healthy foods just in case they would help stave off the conditions discussed.

Check out the full article for more information.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Whole Foods Market buys Wild Oats!

Did you see the business news just a bit ago? If not, now you know... Whole Food Market (NASDAQ:WFMI) is purchasing rival Wild Oats (NASDAQ:OATS) for $565 Million.

I personally have been waiting anxiously for Whole Foods to open their new store here in Cleveland, Ohio, which was first supposed to be open the middle of last year, and at last check they were claiming it would open in March of 2007. Since we already have a Wild Oats store here in town, I now have to wonder exactly what their plans will be. Will they close the existing Wild Oats and consolidate into one new Whole Foods store, or will they decide instead to rebrand the Wild Oats as a Whole Foods, at least for a while (perhaps until their lease at the location ends) or what? It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

We don't often shop at Wild Oats, mainly because if we take time to drive to the store here in town, it is literally 1/2 mile from the nearest Trader Joes. And, if I had to choose between the two, the obvious choice is Trader Joes - since on a price-comparison level, they are much lower priced on the same products. I have seen some items cost literally twice as much at Wild Oats as they do at Trader Joes. The down side to TJ's is that they are a much smaller store, and carry a much more limited selection. So, we quite often need to stop at Wild Oats (or the Mustard Seed Market) to acquire a few of the harder-to-find items.

So, this deal between WFMI and OATS makes me wonder what will become of product pricing. Investors see this merger as a win-win, and both stocks are up significantly in the pre-open today. The obvious reason for this is that these two brands will no longer be competing with each other, and presumably they will have more pricing (and profit) power with their consumers. And, you know what that means: if this presumption is true, then Whole Foods will be able to capitalize on this acquisition through newfound power to control prices better. I.e., you may end up paying more for the same thing! (not good news for us consumers)

I still think players like Trader Joes will keep Whole Foods on guard, and may help alleviate some of the pricing concerns I have. But, as I mentioned earlier, TJs (at least around here) tends to have small stores and smaller selection, so Whole Foods will still be able to price many items (not shared by both stores) as they'd like. Whole Foods stores tend to have an amazing selection of products - I was nearly awed by the store in Columbus, Ohio (which, I understand is the second largest in the country).

So, I guess I just have to sit back and watch this play out. And, Whole Food, please get around to opening the Cleveland store soon -- I'm tired of waiting!!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Gluten-Free Inca Red Quinoa (Ancient Harvest) Review

Ancient Harvest Inca Red Quinoa : Cooked

Gluten-Free Inca Red Quinoa Product Review

I have been a fan of Quinoa (the grain - pronounced "keen-wa") for quite some time - a couple years now in fact. Quinoa is a gluten-free grain that, prior to going on a Celiac-safe gluten-free diet, I had never even heard of. It is nothing short of amazing for its nutritional value as well as its versatility and flavor. Although I am discussing the whole-grain here, I also use quinoa flour in breads and other recipes.

For those of you who are new to Quinoa, it is gluten-free (of course, or I would not eat it), and it is considered an ancient grain that dates back to the Inca civilizations in South America. It originates from Bolivia these days. It is one of the best sources of vegetable protein around, and it has a fair amount of dietary fiber. The grain has a delicious, somewhat nutty, light flavor that goes well with many other dishes.

Some other selling points that are noted on the packages of Quinoa include:
  • Quinoa contains more high-quality protein than any other grain

  • Quinoa provides all the essential amino acids in a balanced pattern

  • Quinoa contains no gluten (of top concern to Celiacs of course)

  • Quinoa is light, tasty, and easy to digest

  • Quinoa is quick and easy to prepare (a personal favorite-feature)
We buy the Ancient Harvest brand of Quinoa, which also happens to be certified organic for anyone that prefers that designation. And, we typically use the "traditional" Quinoa (tan in color), but have recently discovered a variety called Inca Red Quinoa. This variety is similar to the traditional type, but is a red/burgundy color, and has a slightly different texture and taste.

Whereas traditional quinoa is very mild in flavor, this Inca Red variety has a slightly more pronounced flavor. It is in no way overpowering though, and still makes for some very good gluten-free quinoa dishes. Its texture is similar to the traditional type, though I think it is maybe just ever so slightly more dense. This fact is reflected in the nutritional breakdown I believe, since it has a bit more fiber and protein than the traditional type.

Nutritional Breakdown: Regular Quinoa versus Red Quinoa

Specifically, for a 1/4 cup of the uncooked dry Quinoa (considered to be one serving), here is how the two varieties compare (below, T = Traditional, R = Inca Red):
  • Calories: nearly identical at around 165 calories

  • Protein: T has 5 grams, R has 6 grams

  • Dietary Fiber: T has 3 grams, R has 4 grams

  • Carbohydrates: T has 30 grams, R has 29 grams

  • Iron: T has 10% of RDA, R has 13% RDA

  • Phosphorous: T has 15% RDA, R has 25% RDA

  • Calcium: zero for T, 2% for R

  • Riboflavin: 8% for T, 10% for R

  • Sugars: T has 1 gram, R has 5 grams (this surprised me, since I noticed no sweetness in the Red per se).
Regardless of the variety you choose, they are both very nutritious. The Inca Red variety (as you see in the list above) tends to have a bit more nutritional density across the board, with slightly more dietary fiber, protein, and minerals than the traditional version.

Serving Suggestion:
In a previous blog about Quinoa, I discussed a gluten-free garlic, pepper, and herb Quinoa recipe that we favor in our household. To make the recipe pictured above, we actually used about half each of the traditional variety of quinoa and the Inca Red quinoa. The rest of the recipe stayed the same.

The results were fantastic! This dish tasted absolutely wonderful, and was fulfilling on many levels. Full of flavor, plenty of texture, and simply satisfying. It went wonderfully with some oven-roasted chicken my wife baked up the same evening. The chicken was an adaptation of our gluten-free pulled-chicken recipe - same recipe, just minus the "pulled" part, and using some skinless chicken thighs this time.

If you encounter this Ancient Harvest Inca Red Quinoa at a grocery store, I'd certainly recommend giving it a try. Yet another item you can add to your gluten-free baking repertoire. It's bound to satisfy everyone, gluten-free, celiac, and non-GF persons all the same.

Continue to read this Gluten-Free Blog for all sorts of gluten-free recipes, product-reviews, and related information. In addition, visit my Gluten-Free Recipes Site where many of the recipes I have featured on this blog are available.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Gluten-Free Granola Redux

I have been eager to see whether or not my positive experience with Enjoy-Life Gluten & Allergen-Free Granola (Celiac Disease safe and more) was to be limited to just their Cinnamon Crunch variety of the product. I really liked that version of the gluten-free granola, as you can read in my prior gluten-free Enjoy Life Granola prouct review that I recently posted.

So, I have acquired the other two additional varieties of the Enjoy-Life Granola products to try out: Cranapple Crunch and Very Berry Crunch. Each is based on a similar ingredients list and preparation from what I can tell, with the common ingredients being brown rice flakes, rice bran, evaporated can juice, brown rice syrup, water, tapioca flour, coconut, gum arabic, molasses, golden flaxseed, and rosemary extract.

What makes each variety different from the other are the accent-flavors that Enjoy-Life mixes in with their base granola formula. For the Cranapple Crunch version, this means adding some Dried Apples and some cranberries to the mix. For the Very Berry variety, they include freeze-dried strawberries and raspberries, along with some natural strawberry flavor. So, how do they each compare to the Cinnamon Crunch granola I liked so much?

Well, this is where I have to get into a bit of story telling for a moment. One of the aspects of the Cinnamon Crunch that I liked so much was how incredibly crisp and crunchy it was. In fact, it held a hearty crunchy texture even after 15 minutes in Milk! So, I of course expected these new varieties would be equally crunchy, especially since both of the new flavors I tried are labeled with that "NEW crispier crunchier taste!" starburst on the front of each box.

Very Berry Crunch Granola by Enjoy-Life
So, I began by opening the box of Very Berry Crunch, since this flavor sounded intriguing enough to move to the front of my testing group. I open the bag of granola inside, find a nice big granola cluster, and pop it into my mouth... I prepare for that familiar hearty crunch as I slowly bite down on it, but instead am greeted by no crunch at all - in fact, the nugget was soft enough I could have mistaken it for something completely different. Imagine my dismay! So, was this a fluke, or was the Cinnamon version? To help determine the answer, I instantly opened the Cranapple Crunch and repeated the experiment - but, this time I was quite pleased to discover the crunchy texture I expected.

Conclusion: the box of Very Berry Crunch I got must have had a pin-hole in the inner bag, which led to the granola going stale. This was quickly proved out, and remedied, as follows...

Restoring the CRUNCH in stale cereals:

I preheated my oven to 250-degrees. While that was taking place, I poured the contents of the entire box of Enjoy Life Very Berry Crunch onto a jelly-roll type pan (i.e., cookie sheet with sides). Next, I placed that in my preheated oven and let it remain there for 30 minutes. The house took on an interesting, and somewhat pleasing, aroma of strawberries. My wife happened through the kitchen and told me it smelled like someone was toasting strawberry Pop Tarts. After the 30 minutes was up, I let the cereal cool down, and then tried it again: perfect! Crispy, crunchy, hearty and fulfilling granola just as I had desired - and no evidence of it ever being stale.

I don't know where in the supply chain the granola was exposed to extra humidity, though I suspect it was banged around in shipping or something. One thing that could help prevent that is to reduce the size of the box to match the inner package. I've noticed this to be a problem with all sorts of products, where companies sell something in a much larger box than necessary, because it looks bigger and therefore, regardless of weight or quantity therein, it just "must be" a better deal or more enticing. Personal opinion: it's wasteful on many levels (packaging and printing materials, shipping volume, and ultimately - disposal volume). In this particular case, thought the box is 9.5"H x 6.5" W, the inner bag of granola is about 7" x 6". So, there is plenty of room for the contents to shift back and forth inside the box. But, I doubt the box size will ever change to match the inside bag size, since it would just look too small to be considered a "box of cereal" per the typical American consumer's idealized image of what a box of cereal looks like. Well, enough of that side rant, and on to taste testing... :)

The Enjoy Life's Very Berry Crunch was quite pleasing. I enjoyed the berry flavor quite a bit. It was neither overpowering nor underwhelming. I'd call it a subtle berry flavor that definitely has a taste of strawberry and raspberry, but not so subtle that you'd mistake this variety for another variety of the cereal. If you are like me and really like the taste of Cinnamon, you may enjoy sprinkling a little bit of ground cinnamon onto the granola - I found that to be a nice complementary flavor.

So, In addition to learning that Enjoy Life's Very Berry Crunch is quite tasty, you have also learned how to restore the crispy, crunchy texture of any of your favorite gluten-free cereals you have laying around that have perhaps gone stale after opening. I didn't anticipate needing to employ those techniques on a new box of cereal, but it worked fine nonetheless, and certainly cost less (in time and energy) than it would have to drive to a store and get another box. I am rather certain the granola would have been crunchy and crispy had I not encountered the anomalous box on this occasion. Now, if I was to go buy a dozen boxes and run into more than one that had issues, that'd be another story and require some research and problem resolution at a higher level.

Cranapple Crunch Granola by Enjoy Life
Since I had also opened the box of Cranapple Crunch Granola (to verify that it was indeed crunchy as desired), I figured I might as well review that today too. Fact is, it was also quite good. The accent flavors of cranberry, dried apples, and natural apple flavor, are to me a bit more subtle overall than are the berry flavors in the Very Berry Crunch version. I guess this one is not called "Very" Cranapple Crunch :) In all seriousness, I think that the taste of berries is more easily made pervasive in foods than cranberries and apple.

Once again, I put the cereal through both dry-testing and milk-testing, and it passed both tests quite easily. This is a great tasting, and full-textured gluten-free and allergen-free granola. I would certainly eat this cereal again. Same with all of these Enjoy Life gluten-free granolas I have tried thusfar. To date, my favorite version is the Cinnamon Crunch, but I also admit how I am definitely partial to cinnamon - it is one of my favorite flavors in baking, and I use it regularly.

I don't think you can go wrong with any of the varieties of this granola; just choose a flavor that most suits your palate, and give it a try. Each of these gluten-free and dairy-free (and allergen-free) cereals has a pretty high fiber content too (5g / serving), which is very important in our diets, and something that us gluten-free types need to keep in mind, especially when so many gluten-free foods lack any substantial fiber. They are also low in sodium (perfect for anyone watching their blood pressure or adhering to the DASH plan), as well as reasonably low in sugar too. I think that these cereals from Enjoy Life can make up a healthy part of one's diet, while also helping one enjoy what they eat, since the cereal is satisfying on many levels.

On to snowfall...
I would have posted another gluten-free blog entry sooner, but my wrists were killing me after shoveling over a foot and a half of snow we received on Tuesday/Wednesday - the "Valentine's Day Blizzard of 2007" as some were calling it. What a mess! To make matters worse, there was quite a bit of wind and drifting, and the snow had drifted across the area even deeper - some areas were nearly three feet by my garage. I now have piles nearly 6 feet high on the sides of my driveway near the house, where we piled the contents of those snow drifts.

To make matters even more "fun", wouldn't you know... the one time I need my snow blower this year, and it decides not to function! Argghh! I was rather miffed to say the least. Seems the carburetor chose a great time to malfunction. I'm not sure if it was the 10-degree temperatures, or the fact this was the first time this season where I needed the device. Either way, with no easy way to repair it on short notice, the snowblower was to remain idle as my wife, daughter, and I shoveled for a couple hours. It is times like this when I just want to move to Hawaii or something! :) And, we had such a wonderfully mild winter up through early January -- I guess things had to balance out. Oh well.

So, my fingers have had enough of typing on the blog for today. And, I hope to be back to full power in another day or two (here's hoping we don't get any more snow for a while!).

Continue to read this Gluten-Free Blog for all sorts of gluten-free recipes, product-reviews, and related information. In addition, visit my Gluten-Free Recipes Site where many of the recipes I have featured on this blog are available.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Inflation hitting my gluten-free baking budget

We were just out shopping at BJ's Wholesale Club today, which is where we purchase a substantial portion of the ingredients we do all of our gluten-free baking with. We frequent this store because, to date, we have found them to be the most reasonably priced nearby option for large quantities of ingredients we use most often. Large quantities are especially important when we are "experimenting" and creating or perfecting new recipes, since it may take a few iterations to get something just the way we want it.

Well, I have been noticing some serious price inflation hitting these ingredients over the past few months. And, the pace of inflation has been nothing short of speedy. In fact, prices moved upwards so fast and so often on eggs, that I had to look at my receipts from prior purchases to make sure I was not dreaming about my "ideal" price vs. actual. Here's what I have found, on the identical product recently.

Eggs: 2.5 dozen grade-A Large eggs per flat/carton. Just a few months ago, these were running $1.99. I found that to be a bargain. Then, just a month or two ago, I see they have gone up to $2.99 (that's fifty percent increase in case you were opening Windows calculator program). But, it does not end there. Only a week later, it was $3.15. Then, today, nothing short of a shocking $3.59! (yes, now we are at eighty percent increase over a few months for my eggs!).

I can probably find them cheaper elsewhere on sale, but for an apples-to-apples comparison, and for the same product at the same store, this pace of inflation just shocked me. I wrote a prior blog entry back in September of 2006 about how I was concerned that Ethanol production was going to hit my gluten-free baking. Well, that time has come!

If you see similar increases in the prices of eggs you bake with, or in other ingredients or foods, here's some of what is driving the cost:
  1. The price of corn has doubled in the past year! (this is due, primarily to demands for Ethanol production)
  2. Corn (feed) is one of the largest price-components in raising chickens - which tend to be required for creating the eggs :)
  3. Corn is used to feed other livestock as well - so don't be surprised if meat goes skyward in general too - this just furthers demand for the commodity.
  4. Energy costs are high - you need to keep greenhouses and livestock (in this case chickens) warm in the winter, and this gets expensive.
These price pressures are filtering their way down through all sorts of products. I sure hope it is a temporary "egg bubble" or something, but I honestly think it is something that may only get worse as the push to use corn for ethanol increases. And, other grains are not off limit either - in the past year, most commodities (be it soy, wheat, etc) have had huge price increases too because of energy prices and demand for anything to make ethanol with.

Sugar will soon follow, since sugar beets and cane are also used for ethanol production. Then my molasses will go up (and Sorghum flour too). The worst thing is, there will be no avoiding the cost - it's not like purchasing pre-packages gluten-free foods will avoid the increases, since all the manufacturers are facing the same raw material cost increases that I'm seeing too. My favorite Bi-Aglut pasta is made primarily from Corn, and it is already expensive - wonder what it'll cost by year's end?

I apologize if I went on a bit of a rant here in my blogging. I'm just a bit concerned about this trend on a few levels. Anything that threatens my gluten-free food prices is always troubling to me. Now, I guess I could convert my front-yard into a corn-field in the springtime, and put some chicken coops out back for egg production... but, even that would likely fail since my favorite neighborhood roaming raccoons would probably eat all the corn before I could harvest it. Arghh... there's no escaping it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Thanking my gluten-free support team

Although I do all the gluten-free blog writing on this site, much of what I write about would never exist without the wonderful support I get from my own gluten-free "support team", being, my family, friends, and fellow gluten-free foodies.

Most of the gluten-free recipes I publish on this blog are a direct result of the hard work of my wife, and occasionally my daughter. Even though they can both eat anything they want, they invest quite a bit of time into making delicious new gluten free recipes for me. And, so far, they have not tired of it. In fact, the recipes just seem to keep coming and I can eat nearly any kind of food imaginable - all gluten-free now thanks to their efforts.

Today is a perfect example of the work that I so absolutely appreciate and admire. Laura has been recently working at perfecting a recipe to submit to a national baking contest. She's going to take on, head to head, some of the best bakers out there, and even more impressive, she's going to attempt to compete against those "real" (wheat & gluten containing) recipes using gluten-free versions. I have full faith and confidence in her.

My wife has entered her GF creations into "normal" baking contests before and won, though on a regional scale. Going after a national win is certainly ambitious, but it will not surprise me if she can work her way into the finals with some of her creations. I've tasted the food produced for one of her planned entries, and I think it is nearly perfect. And, although I'd love to publish this particular recipe, needless to say, it's off-limits for me at the moment. :)

Another person that has been incredibly helpful is my mother. When I first went wheat-free after correlating wheat-consumption with health problems (prior to learning what Celiac was, and that gluten was the real issue), my mother created a chocolate cake using oat flour. That cake helped convince me that wheat-free didn't mean I could not enjoy my desserts. And, it was one of the early inspirations for all of the gluten-free recipes that would follow, and for the tasty glutenfree treats that would ultimately make it into my Gluten-Free Desserts book.

Now, my mother has stepped up to help with the book-sales effort. In fact, she is my top salesperson outside of the books I sell myself and over the web. Hardly a day goes by without me receiving an Email about how she sold another book here, and another one there. She has this uncanny ability to root out people with Celiac, gluten intolerance, wheat-intolerance, and the like. And, she loves to talk to people about the condition, which leads to her finding even more Celiacs as she goes.

My mother has sold my book to libraries, health-food stores, compounding pharmacies, and quite a few individuals over the past couple months, and she is amazingly effective at it. Who would have guessed? Her pre-retirement career was that of being a registered nurse ever since graduating college. It must be all that experience of interacting with the vast array of different personalities among her patients (and doctors) over the years that now makes this all come naturally to her. I can not thank her enough for being such a great mom, and salesperson to boot!

Other family members and friends have certainly helped me out with ideas and recipes over the past few years. My fellow gluten-free blog-writers and readers, including a group that collectively refers to themselves as "foodies", have also been a tremendous source of inspiration to keep me moving forward in the pursuit of the perfect gluten-free foods, and a life that is quite enjoyable and satisfying - just gluten-free. This gluten-free community on the Internet just keeps growing, and with it there is just so much great information available for both the newly diagnosed Celiacs and those of us that have been living without gluten for quite some time. I am thankful for everything all of you have done to help myself, and everyone else living gluten-free, lead a normal life.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

More Gluten-Free Products reviewed

More Gluten-Free Product Reviews

Having a limited capacity to consume calories can be such a bother, especially when you have so many new gluten-free products to try out. I'm working my way through the various Enjoy Life samples that arrived last week as quickly as possible. Perhaps my progress is thwarted by the fact that once I open something I tend to finish it off before moving on to the next thing.

That was surely the case with the Cinnamon Crunch Granola and the "Not Nuts!" nut-free trail-mix. As I wrote in my previous blog entry (Enjoy Life Gluten-Free Products Review), where I gave a detailed account of each of these products, I really liked each of those, and since then I have finished off both. As with nearly any food products on the market, I don't quite agree with the "servings per container" stated an the packages -- since, the trail-mix claims 6 servings, and the Granola 7 servings. In reality, I got two hearty breakfasts out of the box of Granola and three snacks out of the trail-mix.

I don't know about you, but I have yet to meet anyone that really eats just "one serving" of most things labeled with supposed "servings per container" like this. Not to veer too much from the subject at hand, but have you ever seen how many "servings" are in a pint container of Haagen Dazs, or your favorite ice-cream? Usually it's 1/2-cup per "serving". Next time you want ice-cream, pack it into a 1/2-cup measuring cup and see how that serving compares to what you normally would eat. For me, that "serving" is looking a bit weak.

I just have to laugh at the notion that I could restrict my desire to eat wonderful tasting foods to what is recommended as a "serving" on the package. Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I'll admit that I do put an equally large effort into exercising so that I can eat more - all part of that "eat so I can exercise" and "exercise so I can eat" program I have going :) (so far it's working, and I still weigh within 5 pounds of my college graduation weight of quite a few years past.) Even with all this effort, there are realistic limits to how much I can consume in a day, which has slowed down my gluten-free foods evaluation. I did get to the next Enjoy-Life products finally...

Enjoy Life brand Chocolate Chips Product Review

I have just tackled the Enjoy Life brand Semisweet Chocolate Chips that are GF (of course) and dairy-free too; in fact they only contain: Evaporated Cane Juice, Chocolate Liquor, and Non-Dairy Cocoa Butter. They tasted just fine, and I began by eating them plain (as a snack of sorts) just to see how decent the chocolate was. I am a huge fan of chocolate in general, and these chips were plenty acceptable. The main difference compared to normal chips like Nestle's Toll House Semisweet Chocolate Morsels is that the Nestle's will contain milk fat. If you need to avoid dairy/casein, these Enjoy Life chips are certainly a good way to go - and, they are made in a dedicated facility and certified gluten-free and allergen-free.

But, let me get back to servings and such for a minute. My only complaint with the Enjoy Life chips has nothing to do with the quality of the product, but rather the quantity of the product per bag. Whereas many major brands of chocolate chips (like the Nestle Toll House ones) contain 12 ounces per bag - which is/was more or less a "standard" for bags of chocolate chips - the Enjoy Life brand has only 10 ounces per bag. I find this a bit annoying mainly because quite a few chocolate-chip cookie recipes will call for what is essentially assumed to be an entire bag of chips - i.e., 2 Cups, or a 12-ounce bag. Sure, it won't matter too much if you reduce the number of chips in your cookie recipe by 17%, but still, why does the bag have to contain less than the "normal" amount (12 ounces) just because it is GF/CF?

In all fairness though, I have noticed that manufacturers of mainstream baking chips have quietly been trying to shrink their packaging from 12 ounces, to 11.5 ounces, to 11, to... yep, 10 ounces! Although
Nestlés traditional chips are still in a 12-ounce package, all their newer "swirled morsels" are 10-ounce packages, and their milk-chocolate morsels are 11.5, their PB/Choc combo is 11-ounces, and so on. So, the days of having a bag of chocolate chips be 12-ounces may be over as all the bean-counters running the show at these corporations decide to shrink packages in order to up profits (presumably without us noticing or caring). One would think that standardization of package-sizes, production-machine settings, box-sizes, etc. would save as much as reducing the amount of product in a pack, but what do I know. So, Enjoy Life isn't too far from the rest of the pack in not going with a 12-ounce bag.

One last point I noticed - Enjoy Life seems to use these dairy-free chips in their own "Not Nuts!" product if you want to see how they combine with other things in an unbaked fashion. And, they use them in their chocolate-chip cookies - which I will now discuss.

Enjoy Life Chocolate Chip Cookies product review

My wife and I also each tried an Enjoy Life "chocolate chip cookie" - I put the product name in quotes because what we ate was certainly not a chocolate chip cookie per my definition. These cookies are part of their on-the-go cookie packs product line, and come with two cookies per package. So, we each tried one. And, though they were acceptable as a snack, they are definitely different from a "normal" chocolate chip cookie. This is a softer type cookie - there is no crunchiness like you will find throughout, or at least around the edges of, a traditional Toll House cookie; but, on the flip side, there is also no gluten, dairy, or cholesterol, and very little saturated fat in the Enjoy Life version.

Reviewing a product like these gluten-free chocolate chip cookies is difficult for me, especially when gluten-free desserts are my area of expertise. When I think of chocolate chip cookies, I think of the traditional Toll House variety that I remember eating from when I was a child all the way through my mid-30's when I had to go gluten-free. I still remember the "real" ones rather clearly, and this makes evaluating a chocolate chip cookie that is not just gluten-free, but also allergen-free, really rough.

Consider the fact that a traditional Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe relies heavily on both gluten, eggs, and dairy to obtain it's distinctive flavor. In fact, I'd say that a lot of the flavor in a normal Toll House cookie is from the butter. A typical recipe will use 1 cup (yes 2 whole sticks of butter!) to achieve it's flavor, and such a recipe will yield 4-5 dozen cookies. So, when you are eating a Tablespoon of butter in every 3 cookies consumed (i.e., a Teaspoon of butter in each cookie!), the "real" chocolate chip cookie is bound to taste good!

So, Enjoy Life has to first remove this major component of chocolate chip cookies, and thus with it, they dramatically alter the flavor of what many would consider a "normal" chocolate chip cookie to be. If that wasn't enough, they must also remove the couple eggs you would normally use in the recipe. Now, certainly the result is bound to be healthier - no cholesterol for one thing - but the taste and texture is also quite different.

There is a noticeable taste from the date-paste used in the cookie. I am not used to dates in my chocolate chip cookies, and this just doesn't fit well for me. Likewise, a bulk of their sweetening comes from concentrated fruit juices, and this too plays with the flavor. The only real flour used in their glutenfree chocolate chip cookie formula appears to be Sorghum flour (a fine choice in my opinion), and it seems they use a bit of Xanthan Gum to help bind it all together.

To me (and my wife), the resulting taste and texture is just "OK". We both ate the entire cookie, which is saying something. I have had other GF cookie products I have just taken a bite from and pitched into the trash. This was certainly much better than that. But, in my mind, I can't help coming back to comparing this "chocolate chip cookie" with what I am used to a chocolate chip cookie being. We make GF chocolate chip cookies, and they taste very similar to the "real" thing - but then again, we'll use eggs and butter, granulated sugar, and a combination of flours (and, certainly no date-paste).

So, where does this leave me? I could eat these cookies for snacks, especially when traveling or at a conference or something where I want quick access to something guaranteed safe to eat, and where the pre-packaged on-to-go styling is advantageous. What I have not tested is how well they'd hold up if I threw them in a briefcase and had them bouce around in there for a week or two before opening the pack. If I have time to bake my own chocolate chip cookies, with the requisite eggs and butter I just can't help loving the taste of, that is what I would prefer. But, realizing that there are many people that can't or won't eat dairy and eggs, this product will probably be a welcome gluten-free / allergen-free product for many.

Enjoy Life brand Cocoa Loco Bars Product Review

I also just recently tried the Enjoy Life coco-loco bars - and, though not great by any means, they are quite tolerable and I have eaten a couple of them now. I certainly do not look at these as being a chocolate brownie or a replacement thereof. They are definitely a "snack bar" as marketed, and remind me of an energy-bar type product. They definitely have cocoa taste, but there are competing flavors of date-paste and fig-paste in there also. I can detect the Sorghum flour texture and taste too, which is fine by me.

The bars have a hearty, chewy, firm texture with something that may be a bit surprising to anyone that is not used to rice flakes - and, that is the crunchiness and interesting texture of the brown rice flakes used in the product. This is going to be something you will probably either love, or hate. I have baked with the rice-flakes before, and even tried to create an oatmeal-free oatmeal cookie, whereby I used the brown rice flakes in place of rolled oats. The result was a cookie that, although it tasted very similar to an oatmeal cookie, its texture was quite different. I tried everything - soaking the rice-flakes in molasses/water for a day, and other techniques. In the end, I abandoned the recipe since my taste-testers (all being non-GF) could not get past the crunchy rice flakes, and to make them come out without such a different texture was just way too much work. Oddly, my father really liked them when I produced a batch that was just amazingly chewy and crispy all in one - but, he was the exception.

So, you'll have to tackle the Cocoa Loco bars knowing the texture is going to be different. The bars are vitamin-fortified, and would certainly make a great breakfast bar or snack bar when you need something in a hurry. Because they are dense and soft/chewy, they should hold up well if packed in a lunch or in your coat-pocket (don't worry - they are individually wrapped).

For the allergen-free folks, this bar is bound to be a hit. And, many others may like it too, but it is also bound not to appeal to everyone due to the texture and interplay of various flavors. My daughter (not GF), for example, tried it and didn't mind the texture but didn't care for the date/fig flavors (she does not like dates at all). I don't think you'll go too far wrong trying these knowing what to expect. Do not buy the product thinking you are about to eat a chocolate brownie or cookie or such - that is now what it is. Go into it thinking energy-bar or snack-bar with flavors of chocolate, dates, and more, and there's a good chance you will like it - especially if you read this review and the description sounds like something you want to try. I hope I captured the essence of the product here for you.

General Discussion and what's been going on...

Aside from consuming all these Enjoy Life gluten-free products, I have been keeping busy with a few other things. The work on the jewelry (in the local college's jewelry-making class) continues, and I think my wife and I are making good progress after just a few weeks. Our metal-on-metal soldering technique has certainly improved, and we've completed some of our first pendants, brooches, and even earrings (though, no backs put on them yet). It's certainly been a fun learning experience thus far.

Also, a few days ago, my wife was in the office when my phone rang. In my absence, she took the call and was greeted by a lady who had recently found this gluten-free blog and tried some of our recipes. In particular, she was calling to tell us how much she was thrilled by the gluten-free brown honey bread recipe that we posted a while back! She baked the recipe, and not having the Pyrex dish we baked it in, tried the recipe out in two standard bread loaf pans - and the results were fantastic.

This lady went on to tell my wife how, although she has been gluten-free for a long time, she had just ran across our gluten-free blog and our recipes, and really loved how our breads were so much different from the usual recipes that had little or no fiber or nutritional value... she really like how we had used Buckwheat, Flax, Teff and such to make our breads more nutritionally complete as well as more flavorful.

Needless to say, my wife enjoyed hearing that her hard work is making others happy! I too was glad to receive such feedback - it's a great feeling of accomplishment knowing we've helped other Celiacs and gluten-free / wheat-free people in some way. Since I didn't talk to the lady, I didn't get a first hand chance to tell her thanks for calling and giving us such wonderful feedback; so, if you are reading this - thank you!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Enjoy Life Gluten-Free Products Review

Yesterday, I received a surprise in my driveway. I went outside to shovel some newly fallen snow, and noticed a box propped up against my garage door (I guess the delivery person didn't want to take time to walk the extra 20 steps to my front door). What immediately caught my attention was how the box was addressed to "Gluten-Free Blog" - I just had to put snow shoveling on hold and take the box inside to see what it was.

As it turned out, the box contained a sampling of various gluten-free and allergen-free products from Enjoy Life Natural Brands (update: simply "Enjoy Life" now). In the box was a letter introducing themselves and their products, and encouraging me to try the foods and review them and tell my readers about them. My first thought was "do they even know who I am? ...they may get more then they bargain for!". I say this because anyone that knows me realizes I am a very harsh critic of gluten-free products.

A little background on my dislike of many gluten-free products: upon being forced to join the Celiac and gluten-free crowd a few years ago, my first thought was "what will I eat?" I tried various store-bought gluten-free products and found them to be typically sub-par, and then I tried baking recipes from multiple gluten-free recipe books and found those to be generally mediocre at best. This led me to my next major thought, being "who could stand to eat this stuff for the rest of their lives?"

This early experience with gluten-free foods and gluten-free recipes was the primary reason my wife and I invested a massive amount of time and resources into mastering gluten-free baking, and why I authored a satisfaction-guaranteed book on Gluten-Free Gourmet Desserts - desserts being one of my "must have" food-groups that I absolutely needed to be as good as they were in my pre-gluten-free days if I was to remain on this gluten-free diet. And, I wanted to help others bypass the hit-and-miss (mostly miss) foods experience they would otherwise likely encounter when first being diagnosed with wheat or gluten-intolerance.

So, there you have it. My psyche has been tainted with the memories of many bad gluten-free products in the past, and very few commercial, store-bought products ever make it onto my short-list of regularly consumed items.

I am pleased to announce I now have at least two new items to add to my list of good, satisfying, and recommendable gluten-free products! I say "at least" because I have yet to try all of the items that were sent to me. But, of the two I did try thus far, both were a hit.

The first product I really like was the Enjoy Life Cinnamon Crunch Granola. That link will show you the ingredients and nutritional information, which is pretty decent too (low sodium, high-fiber, and rather good protein, fat, and sugar levels - especially for granola). The ingredients are simply: brown rice flakes, rice bran, evaporated can juice, brown rice syrup, raisins, water, tapioca flour, coconut, cinnamon, gum arabic, vanilla, molasses, golden flaxseed, and rosemary extract.

Enjoy Life positions this product (as they do many of their products) as "allergen free", since they avoid all common allergens (meaning: no wheat, gluten, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, fish, shellfish, corn, potato, sulfites, sesame, or casein). Whew! What a list! Thankfully, I'm only worried about the gluten-free status, but it's nice to know that people with many other dietary restrictions can also safely enjoy this cereal.

What really got my attention with the Cinnamon Crunch Granola is my history with the product. I actually tried this product a couple years or so ago, and did not like it at all then. In fact, I have never bought it since, and even passed on a free-sample handout at a store a while back since I had bad memories of it. So, when I saw the box of cereal among the samples, I was thinking "oh my, do they really want me to review that?"

I then noticed this purple-starburst pattern on the box that said "NEW crispier crunchier taste!" Aha! Now I couldn't resist trying it. Curiosity made me wonder if it was just marketing-hype or for real. I'm so used to "new and improved" labels on products where there is no noticeable difference, I couldn't help but be skeptical. And, since they claim to have addressed one of my big issues with the product in the past - it was lacking both taste and texture - I had to give it a try.

I am very glad I did try the granola! It is remarkably improved on many levels! Enjoy Life has gotten the Cinnamon Crunch Granola right! First off, it delivers on that "crispier and crunchier" claim in a serious way. In fact, it is so wonderfully crunchy, that I feel compelled to warn all you gluten-free readers to be careful especially if you eat it dry - it is not your typical textureless gluten-free cereal, and, you best prepare your teeth for some really hearty chomping. I don't think it'll break your teeth, but it'll surely give your jaw a workout. And, this is a good thing. I'm so sick of having to eat cereals that are lacking a serious crunch; this was a most welcome change.

Next, I figured I would force the product to fall short instantly just by wetting it down with milk. Crunchy when dry is one thing, but to remain crunchy when wet is quite another. Again, I am delighted to report that this Cinnamon Crunch Granola holds up in milk even better than "normal" (oats, wheat, gluten-containing, etc) granola - in fact, I timed its durability. :) The larger chunks were still very hearty and crunchy even after 15 minutes in milk! That is exceptional, and how they accomplished this with gluten-free, all-natural ingredients is remarkable to me. The cereal has a great rich cinnamon flavor too, just as one would expect from a product called Cinnamon Crunch Granola.

The only thing that isn't 100% accurate with the product is the picture on the front of the box -- the actual cereal is considerably darker in color than what is shown on the box (if you can tell in my above picture of the box, and the bowl of cereal). Someone probably thought it looked better for marketing purposes to show what appears to be a more commonly perceived image of what granola should look like, rather than the darker chunks you will see once you open the box. I understand, having photographed food quite a bit, how difficult it can be to make each bit of food look its best, but one thing I will not do is show a picture that is different from what my recipes create - it's a personal peeve of mine. Lucky for Enjoy Life, their granola is quite tasty, since if it was not, I would really rip them over this photographic faux pas.

The bottom line: Enjoy Life has definitely improved this product over the past few years. I can quite honestly say that instead of avoiding this cereal, I am going to go out of my way to purchase their Enjoy Life Cinnamon Crunch Granola from now on. I have wanted a good breakfast granola for a long time, and now I have found one. And, I already made sure I could eat multiple bowls of the stuff at once without reaching "burn out" - 3 servings worth was no problem at all, and I could have eaten more. :)

The other product I tried thus far was called "Not Nuts!" - a nut free trail mix - which was actually quite good too. It is also allergen-free according to the label, and the ingredients are simply: sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, dried apples, dairy-free chocolate chips, cranberries, and rosemary extract (citric acid is lists too, and I'm not sure how they address the corn issues I've heard about most citric-acid sources). I must admit that, even though the bag claims "6 servings" (at 140 calories per serving), I ate 2/3 of the bag in one sitting last evening and thoroughly enjoyed it. So, 4 servings... hmmm... 560 calories. Oh well. It's "good" calories - fruit, nuts, etc. And, sulfite-free (I avoid sulfites like the plague). Now I need to get back to snow shoveling to burn off those calories,... so I can eat more. heh.

I took a bit longer blogging about these product reviews than I had intended, so I'll get to the other Enjoy Life product review(s) in the future. The real test for Enjoy Life, whether they can handle the results of my review or not, will be when I evaluate their desserts - they sent some cookies for evaluation. Needless to say, desserts are my specialty, and since I guarantee that my own gluten-free desserts are as good as the real thing, I have a very high bar for such products to meet in order to be considered good. But, if the results are not favorable, Enjoy Life can always contract my wife and I to fix any issues :)