Saturday, August 27, 2011

Riega Foods Cheese Sauce Review and Giveaway!

Most of the time I like to cook sans processed foods. But I'll admit, there are days when my schedule is filled with activities and sometimes you want a little convenience. This is where Riega Foods cheese sauces come in. These mixes can help create a fast, delicious and gluten free meal for your family.

Recently Riega Foods sent me a complimentary box of their cheese sauces to sample.  When it arrived I found boxes of Pepper Jack, Alfredo, Yellow and White Cheddar sauces.

I noticed on the back of the package under the ingredients listing, they mention it is "made in a factory and on machinery that also processes: milk, eggs, wheat and soy."  This concerned me, so I emailed Riega to get more information.

I received quick and detailed email back that reassured me about their gluten safety procedures.

"Vanessa, Thank you for the email. To answer both of your emails I will explain our processes and how we ensure our products are gluten free. Please understand that I have family members and friends that cannot eat gluten and I understand the medical issues that can result from unintended digestion of gluten. I started this company with the full understanding of what needs to happen, and we do not just put gluten free on our products because we don't use wheat, rye or barley.

To ensure our products are truly gluten free we test after production every single batch after it has been packaged. We send this to a third party, because they have no interest in the outcome. We use the University of Nebraska FARRP Lab (CSA uses same lab). I have attached a recent report to this email, so you can see. To date, every batch of our finished cheese sauce has come back as below quantifiable levels (5 ppm) for gluten. To me that is the only way you can ever ensure a product is gluten free, whether it is made in a gluten free facility or not. As a note, not all companies test and not all companies with the gluten free logo's on their packages test every batch.

In regards to the product, the final mixing and packaging is done in a shared facility, but as you can see from our testing reports we take steps to ensure their is no cross contamination. The facility itself is a number of small rooms, which contain each individual piece of equipment. Each room can be closed off and once production is finished the entire equipment and room are cleaned. It is hard to explain without seeing the facility, but with our cleaning procedures and testing protocol there is no chance of any type of cross contamination. It is possible that from time to time a machine also handles a product that contains wheat, but again with the setup of facility and cleaning procedures there is no cross contamination. This is not a manufacturing environment like bread, cookies, or something where a machine is difficult to clean at some point. The machines used to mix and package can be broken down 100% and cleaned. Same for the room from top to bottom.

I hope that helps explain all and makes you feel more comfortable. Please understand that we have family members and friends with gluten issues and I take the level of gluten very seriously. It is why we disclose so much about our procedures, testing and environment. Their are ways we could build some gray areas into they reporting system, but I just will not do that.

If you still do not feel comfortable with our products, then I understand. I believe everyone must make informed choices, and I hope that we can help you do that about our products. Please just let me know.

Brad Gampper

PS. As a side note I had actually posted something about this on a facebook group earlier this morning. You can read it here."

I was really happy to hear that they test their products to ensure safety. And the levels have come back at under 5 ppm - less than the proposed standard the FDA is considering using. This made me feel comfortable trying their sauce mixes.

First, I tried the traditional yellow cheese sauce. Directions call for you to cook 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups of your favorite pasta and mix. I prefer 1 cup pasta as I like my sauce extra cheesy. Just add some butter and a little milk (or substitute of your choice if you don't eat dairy) to your cooked noodles, and "voila!"  Mac and cheese.  It was quite good. You could add some mixed veggies, paprika ( I LOVE paprika) and maybe a little red pepper to spice it up, or just enjoy the cheese and noodles on their own.

The other night, I tried the Alfredo sauce and mixed it with some rotini rice noodles as a side dish to my favorite dish - Chicken Piccata. The sauce was creamy, with a hint of garlic and parsley.

These would be great mixes to take camping along with some gluten free noodles, or traveling to a family or friend's house where you aren't sure if there will be something for you to eat.

Another bonus to this is that you can use your preference of pasta. Some of the pre-packaged white rice pasta mac and cheeses are a bit bland to me, so I like to buy brown rice noodles for more taste and fiber.

Riega Foods website lists where you can find their products, and they also have an online store. I've seen these at Whole Foods and Fresh and Easy, and they sell for about $1.39 a package, so they are quite affordable for people on the go.

If you want your favorite store to carry this product, download this form and take it to your grocer to make a request.

Thanks Riega for a convenient... and yummy gluten free product.


To win 4 packets of each kind of sauce, (total of 16 yummy sauce packets) please enter by Wednesday August 31 to enter for your chance to win:

  • Tweet and post a link to this article
  • Comment on your Facebook page (if you have one) with a link to this article, and;
  • Leave a comment on this blog related to this topic

I will randomly choose and contact 2 winners by Wednesday September 7th.

Good luck!!!

- Gluten Free Chickadee

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Journey to Gluten Free

Jeremy and I Christmas Season a few Years Back

I believe I've always had a food intolerance or celiac (still in process of confirming diagnosis.) Growing up, I remember having reoccurring throat infections from age 12 to now. In high school, I developed anxiety and a bit of fatigue - which I didn't understand at that time - I just thought I was a "lazy" teenager. I felt like this nervousness kept me from joining in to many social functions. I also had digestive issues, which I attributed as symptoms from the anxiety and nervousness. I was told that stress can do weird things to your body, and although I know that's true, I know that's not the cause of my symptoms now.

Out of high school, I landed a job as a customer service rep at a health insurance company with help from my mom, whom also worked there in another department. We commuted together an hour each way from a nearby valley. This was hard on me; I couldn't handle the stress and started having panic attacks. Maybe it was because it was my first real job? I mean, I never had to deal with "grown-up" responsibilities before.

At work, I remember having loose stools and embarrassing gas after breakfast. I thought maybe it was lactose intolerance from my lattes, but I didn't always get this after drinking milk so I was stumped. My doctors chalked it all up to depression, and soon after I began taking Zoloft. I was on this for close to 5 years. I would stop taking Zoloft, but only after I went gluten free later down the road. My moods seemed to get better while on antidepressants, but my digestive problems did not. In the last few years I have had some embarrassing situations and close calls where I had to be near a bathroom due to uncontrollable bowel movements.  Maybe I had IBS?

Two years ago at the age of 32, it became even worse. My muscles started tightening and I was always very tense. Again I thought it was stress and tried working out at the gym several times a week. It didn't help much. These pains slowly turned into debilitating muscle spasms where I was out of work for days on end. I couldn't lay down in bed and slept upright with pillows propping me up. I took a chair massager to work with me to get through the day. Not fun at all. I began seeing a chiropractor, which seemed to help only temporarily. I remember one day I went in to get a therapeutic massage, I was in so much pain that I sat huddled in my robe in the corner of their bathroom crying. Along with these pains, I was having brain fog, joint pain, digestive problems, trouble concentrating and memory issues. I remember always "searching" for words that I couldn't seem to find. I was falling apart and it was frustrating.

Then one day during all of this, walking upstairs to my apartment I realized I was completely out of breath. That night I slept on the couch because I couldn't get comfortable in bed. I had horrible chills that night and knew something was terribly wrong. The next day, I walked to my doctors office near my work (have no idea how I was still working as I really was getting nothing done due to the pain and other symptoms), an xray showed a large amount of fluid in the lining of my right lung. I was immediately checked into the hospital and was told there was an underlying infection and would need thoracic surgery. I was really scared. I was in the hospital with a chest tube for more than a week. Everyone said how unusual it was for a then 32 year old to have this illness. I mean, I was healthy right? How did this happen?

But in all honesty, I really wasn't. One of my friends jokes with me whenever I get sick that I always have had some kind if illness, and he is right. In my 20's, I had endometriosis, the cartilage in my knees was falling apart, and then of course there was the tonsillitis and strep almost every year. Where was all of this coming from? Were they possibly all related?

After the thoracic surgery I thought I would get better, but I didn't seem to be healing the way I thought I would. I still had chest pain, joint pain, brain fog, severe fatigue and an inability to concentrate. I lost my job two months after my surgery. Doctors had given me broad-spectrum antibiotics for about 6 weeks. (Later I would find out what a detriment this was to my body due to a candida overgrowth.) Since doctors could not find a reason for my health issues, and didn't seem interested in helping me further after my surgery (tried to push pain pills and antidepressants), I started doing research and went through several self diagnoses. First I thought it was my moldy apartment, so I moved. Symptoms got a little better but not much.

After no help from doctors, I started researching an had an "a-ha" moment. Could it be Celiac or a gluten intolerance? I immediately began following the diet, and what do you know, my symptoms lessened. Today my brain fog, anxiety, joint pain and digestive symptoms are significantly reduced. I rarely feel joint pain, and it is nice not to have panic attacks anymore. About 5 months ago, I stopped taking Zoloft and find I don't need it now.

Still, I believe I have a lot of healing to do. Due to the broad spectrum antibiotics, I believe I have a candida overgrowth. I think I may have had this even before my thoracic surgery. I remember a few months before I got terribly ill, I had a throat infection, and took antibiotics. Within a week I was vomiting, and my health went into a downward spiral from there. I think that all of my healthy bacteria was gone; this left a door open to candida, molds and other pathogens. I started getting better eating gluten free, but as soon as I started eating GF breads and baked goods I became ill again. I suspected yeast and sugar. I heard somewhere that many celiacs have other allergies or sensitivities. Today, I am not only eating gluten free, but yeast and sugar free. Whenever I backslide and eat sugar or yeast (I'm always gluten free), within a day I begin to feel ill and inflammation builds. So, I've learned to adjust my lifestyle.

I can't say it was easy in the beginning. Going gluten free, I've had many setbacks. While in the learning stages, I've had a few bouts of accidental gluten ingestion. It's been a challenge learning to read confusing labels. And there was a time I went through denial and backslid, only to get sick again.

There are days where I feel sorry for myself and just want to devour a Philly cheese steak. I have to remind myself that my health is on the line and I'll regret it if I eat a pretzel with cheese at the mall. Parties and family events are hard. Some restaurant management look at you like you are speaking a foreign language and don't know what gluten is.

But now I'm in a groove and am pretty comfortable with my new diet. I've found new foods and new places to eat. And you know what?  I eat healthier than before and that's a good thing. I also keep a food journal in case I get sick and need to look back at what I might have done wrong. I try to focus on the foods I CAN have instead of those I can't. And my boyfriend has been very patient with me, adapting with dinner and groceries. I am fortunate as he is really supportive and knows how much better I feel as a result of my diet. I've always been into nutrition, but this has really opened the door to true healthy eating! It's a good thing for me that I love to cook. I really enjoy using whole, organic local produce and visit the local farmer's market several times a month. It's good for our bodies, the environment and the communities we live in.

While I still don't know for sure if gluten is the real cause of all of these illnesses, until proven otherwise, I know this is a much heathier way of eating for me and I will continue to do what helps me heal. I can only hope that my story will help others and those with health issues like mine will be able to listen to their bodies and find the right path for themselves as well.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Udi's Snickerdoodle Cookies

Last week I got a case of the afternoon munchies while at work. In addition to eating gluten free, I've also been on a sugar and yeast free diet. I have symptoms of what I think is a candida overgrowth and the doctors are still trying to figure this out, but it almost completely goes away when I cut all sugar and yeast out of my diet. However, I can't deprive myself forever, so I decided I deserved a treat and walked to the local Ralphs supermarket in downtown Los Angeles. I wasn't sure what this market would have for a gluten free selection, but was pleasantly surprised.

On an aisle ending, I found a gluten-free stand with crackers, pasta, and cookies. I saw the Udi's Snickerdoodles, and immediately got excited. I felt like a kid waiting for her mom to hand her a popsicle. I used to enjoy making these cookies with my mom and sister during the holiday season, and really miss these. I began to think they would probably be a let-down to the Snickerdoodles I remembered in my gluten-filled days.  I was wrong.  These cookies were soft, chewy and full of cinnamon sugared yumminess.  Oh man, these made a perfect end to my day.

If you aren't familiar with Udi's gluten free foods, you can see their products here.  They make bagels, bread, pizza crusts, muffins, and recently, came out with hamburger and hot dog buns that are really delicious (mentioned in a previous review.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Schooby Dooby to Ruby's Diner - Udi's Gluten Free Buns!

 Last week the man and I went clothes shopping at the Citadel Outlets (I LOVE the Maz Azria store there) near downtown Los Angeles. We were looking for a place to power our batteries before our afternoon shopping spree.  Jeremy (the man) suggested Ruby's, which is also at the outlets.  I was a bit hesitant, due to it being a "burger and fries" type of establishment. For those of you that live in Southern California or the few other states they are in, you may know about Ruby's Diner.  I used to get their chili dogs when I had junk food cravings. Their breakfasts and salads are quite good, too. But when I went gluten free about a year ago, I cut out many restaurants because I was unsure about eating at these places due to cross contamination issues, and lack of variety for someone like me. Ruby's was one of these places.

But when I sat down and looked at the menu, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Ruby's now carries Udi's hamburger buns!   Yahoo! I ordered a turkey burger with pepper jack, bacon and avocado.  I love me some avocado.  But what was even more amazing was that I was sitting in a restaurant eating an actual burger on a BUN!  I was in heaven and my boyfriend could tell. I savored every bite.

The staff was very accommodating.  I talked to the manager when ordering to ensure that not only would I have a gluten free burger, that they would assure me that they would take extra precautions to prevent cross-contamination.  I saw him communicate with the kitchen which made me feel quite comfortable.

I was a happy girl.

As a reminder, whenever eating out, even if a dining establishment advertises gluten free items, I highly recommend talking to the wait staff, or the manager if you feel better doing so, to ensure the kitchen is trained and/or is willing to ensure there will be no cross contamination. Many gluten free items are becoming more available, but remember that some think that this is due to the health trend that some are practicing, and not because they are actually intolerant to gluten or wheat.  Always communicate your needs.

Ruby's Diners are in California, Texas, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and New Jersey.  they advertise the gluten free buns on their website, but call ahead first to make sure they carry it at the location you plan to visit.

If you are not familiar with Udi's, can out their website of wonderful gluten free foods here.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

MSG: Food For Thought

I was looking at a bag of chips the other day, deciding if I wanted to eat them. I looked at the ingredients (which I do with everything, since I am now a label reader due to gluten), and found it to have "autolyzed yeast."  Why you say, would chips need YEAST in them? Well..... this is another term used for monosodium glutamate, i.e. MSG. You'd be surprised how much MSG is used. It is in dressings, gravies, chips, crackers, lunch meats, soups, and even in cosmetics and shampoos! I'm still trying to wrap my head around that last one.

What is MSG? MSG is an amino acid, or in other words, a protein building block, which causes an excitatory process within our neurotransmitters, or nerve cells. When you have an excess of glutamate, it can cause overstimulation and result in death of nerve cells. It is shown that people who have strokes can have an excess of glutamate in the brain. Drugs are being developed to block glutamates, so we know that there is a delicate balance in this situation of having too much of this substance. And this substance can cause reactions in some people such as migraine headaches, upset stomach, fuzzy thinking, diarrhea, heart irregularities, asthma, and/or mood swings. Fun stuff, eh?

People argue that since the human body creates glutamates, that glutamates are not bad. But these man made glutamates have contaminants from being processed/created chemically. And it might even be that too many glutamates - man made or natural - in excess are not good. If you'd like to learn more, here is a site that explains this in more detail.

And manufacturers are getting sneaky about their labels.  They will list "no added MSG," which means it is in there because a processed flavor enhancer already has it in its ingredients! See this site that provides names for all of these hidden sources of MSG.

I'm a big proponent of knowing what is going into my body, especially now knowing that gluten has had a negative effect on my system and well being. So why then, would I want anything unnatural in there either? I believe my body is my temple, and you are what you eat. Better safe than sorry. And I definitely don't let my government decide that for me. Educate yourself and be well.

Update to this post:  Although I usually post about gluten-freee foods, I feel that MSG is closely related to this topic. Many of us who eat gluten free look for healthy alternatives. For those who have sensitive digestive systems due to the intolerance or celiac, we try to cut other items out that can exacerbate the problem, and MSG can be one of those ingredients.