Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Arrowhead Mills Buckwheat Flour - is it Gluten Free?

I promised my faithful readers back in February that I would provide a riveting blog post involving a gluten test on Arrowhead Mills Organic Buckwheat Flour.  Today, belatedly, I will fulfill that promise.  But first, a word about buckwheat and why it might need testing for gluten.

Buckwheat is not related to wheat at all.  If you would like an explanation of the word origin, read the Wikipedia article on buckwheat and click to Etymology.  The point is, it's more closely related to rhubarb than anything remotely like a cereal grain.  It is ground into a flour for use in any number of baked goods.  Buckwheat waffles are my favorite application of this flour. 

In spite of the fact that buckwheat is nothing like actual wheat, the flour can sometimes be contaminated with wheat flour.  For most people this would not affect the use of buckwheat flour, but for those sensitive to wheat gluten it could make them sick.   The cross-contamination could happen during the harvesting of the food or during production of the flour.  The source of the contamination is not always clear, but the end result is that there are very few certified gluten-free buckwheat flours on the market.  (Birkett Mills has buckwheat flours that they say are gluten-free, but I have not tried them.)  Arrowhead Mills is the only one that I have found that claims a gluten-free status right on the bag.  However, as I mentioned in my Hearty Blueberry Muffins Recipe, Arrowhead Mills has not been explicit about whether or not they test their buckwheat for gluten contamination.  I wrote to them to ask about it, and this was their reply:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding our Arrowhead Mills Buckwheat Flour. We strive to maintain the highest quality products and your satisfaction is very important to us.
The Hain Celestial Group's labeling declares major allergens (peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, tree nuts, and wheat) and we follow the U.S. FDA's regulations. We recognize the serious nature of the allergen issue and we strive to minimize risk.

Both major and minor ingredients of all products, as well as all processing procedures and equipment, are closely scrutinized and all potential allergen issues as determined by the Hain Celestial Group are declared on our labeling.

We assure you that strict manufacturing processes and procedures are in place and that all of our manufacturing facilities follow rigid allergen control programs that include staff training, segregation of allergen ingredients, production scheduling, and thorough cleaning and sanitation.

Thank you for your continued support. If we can be of further assistance, please feel free to contact us at 1-800-434-4246, Monday through Friday from 7AM - 5PM Mountain Time.

I wanted to use the flour in some products I am selling in my online store, and I needed them to be absolutely safe for celiacs and other gluten-sensitive individuals.  Since they didn't answer the part of my question about testing, I decided to test it myself.  I bought a 5-pound bag from the Arrowhead Mills online store.  I used an EZ Gluten Test Strip to test it for gluten.  The test, which can be bought for personal use, is sensitive to anything above 10 parts per million of gluten protein.
To my surprise, the test came back positive for gluten.  To make sure I didn't just hit a "hot spot" I tested the flour a second time, from a different portion of the bag, with the same results.  It was not a "high positive," and unfortunately the type of testing I use does not give me an exact amount of gluten in parts per million (ppm).  The EZ Gluten test has only five possible results: Negative, Positive, High Positive, Very High Positive, and Invalid.  The High Positive rating is for gluten presence up to 10% or 100,000 ppm.  All I know from the "Positive" test results is that the flour has gluten above 10 ppm and below 100,000 ppm.  The federal guideline for claiming that a product is "gluten-free" is that it has fewer than 20 ppm of gluten protein.  It's possible that this buckwheat flour falls under that range.  My testing is not sensitive enough to determine the exact amount of gluten in my sample.
You can see that the third line, the "test" line, is faint compared to the H and C lines.  The EZ gluten literature states that "the intensity of the test line is not an indication of gluten concentration."

My conclusion is that individuals who are highly sensitive to gluten should use caution with this product.  While Arrowhead Mills cleans their lines before processing their buckwheat, it does not sound like they have a dedicated facility for gluten-free production, and they don't say whether they do any testing in-house for gluten contamination.  While their product may have fewer than 20 ppm of gluten as per the federal guideline in the US, there is currently no law or federal regulation that can force them to prove or comply to this standard.  My own testing has shown that there is likely over 10 ppm of gluten.  Regular and consistent testing of the flour in a lab would be required to determine whether it is truly gluten-free.


pilgrimscottage said...

I'm glad for this information. Thank you. I don't have a way of testing products and have looked at those bags of buckwheat flour but, just not sure. Being highly sensitive, I must have products that are clean as possible.

Gina said...

Pilgrims Cottage - I'm glad you found this information helpful. I love buckwheat flour, so I was really hoping this was going to be a safe gluten-free source. You can buy the test strips online if they would be helpful to you.

dilettantesteph said...

Thank you for your intelligent blog post. Also, thank you for acknowledging more sensitive celiacs/gluten intolerants. I feel like our existence is denied or considered crazy all too often. There is a forum for such individuals. We won't try to sell you anything!! We do share possible super safe sources with each other. We also share testing results like the one you just did.

Check it out:

Shauna said...

Thank you for posting your test results! My daughter is more sensitive than some of the Celiacs in my family and seems to react to most products that contain more than around 10ppm.

We've been looking at potential grains for her to use and it's so nice to find the information we need without having to have gone through the testing ourselves! Thank you!

beedee said...

Thank you for this post. Arrowhead Mills no longer has buckwheat flour listed as gluten-free on their website. Bob's Red Mill also does not claim to have GF buckwheat flour. Is the source of the buckwheat flour in your flour mixes a source with a dedicated gluten-free facility?

Gina said...

Beedee, Thanks for your comment. The reason I did this test on the Arrowhead Mills buckwheat flour was because I was seeking a buckwheat flour that was truly gluten-free for use in my mixes. I did find some buckwheat groats from a gluten-free source which I grind myself in my gluten-free facility. My flour mixes have so far all tested negative for gluten to 10 ppm.

Isabela Carvalho Santos said...

Hi, Thank you so much for your hard work posting it and keeping us updated with GF products. Isabela

Greg M said...

Can You post where I can get gluten free buckwheat? I need it for my daughter. Thanks

Gina Kelley said...

Greg, the only solution I have found is to buy Bob's Red Mill whole buckwheat groats, kasha, or their creamy buckwheat hot cereal, then grind it myself. (Their buckwheat flour is not guaranteed GF, but these other products are.) Right now I just use the flour I make as a component of my bread mixes, but if I ever decide to start selling the flour I'll let you know!