Is milk bar gluten-free safe for celiacs?

Milk Bar, the popular bakery chain started by chef Christina Tosi, has become known for its inventive and decadent treats like the Cereal Milk Soft Serve and Compost Cookies. However, many fans of Milk Bar have also wondered if their gluten-free items are truly safe for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. This article will dive into what gluten-free means, the processes and ingredients Milk Bar uses in their gluten-free treats, and whether celiacs can enjoy these items without risk of reaction.

What Does “Gluten-Free” Mean?

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, even small amounts of gluten can cause negative reactions like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, skin rashes, headaches, and fatigue.

The FDA defines gluten-free as meaning a food contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. For a celiac, 20ppm is generally considered a safe threshold that allows them to consume gluten-free foods without reaction. However, some extra-sensitive celiacs react to amounts lower than 20ppm.

How Milk Bar Makes Gluten-Free Treats

On their website, Milk Bar states that all their bakery locations offer gluten-free cookies, truffles, and cake layers. They use certified gluten-free oat flour in their recipes. Their kitchens have procedures in place to avoid cross-contamination when preparing gluten-free items. This includes:

  • Using separate prep areas and equipment just for gluten-free baking
  • Thorough cleaning of all tools and surfaces between normal and gluten-free prep
  • Bagging gluten-free treats separately from regular items

Employees change gloves between preparing regular and gluten-free items. Their gluten-free treats do not come into contact with gluten ingredients at any point during production.

Are Milk Bar’s Gluten-Free Offerings Truly Safe?

Based on their stringent procedures and use of certified gluten-free ingredients, Milk Bar’s items labeled gluten-free should fall well below the FDA’s threshold of 20ppm of gluten. However, sensitive celiacs have still reported reactions after consuming their treats.

There are a few potential reasons for this:

  • Trace amounts of gluten could accidentally get introduced during production.
  • Suppliers of gluten-free ingredients like oat flour may not adequately control for cross-contamination.
  • Each celiac has a different sensitivity level, and some react strongly to amounts under 20ppm.

So can celiacs trust Milk Bar’s gluten-free items? Here are some key considerations:

The Good

  • Milk Bar actively tries to eliminate gluten from these products and has strict protocols in place.
  • The ingredients used (like oat flour) are certified gluten-free.
  • Many celiacs happily consume their gluten-free treats without any reaction.

This indicates Milk Bar’s treats likely fall within the FDA’s safe zone for most celiacs. Their procedures help minimize the risk of gluten exposure.

The Bad

  • Gluten isn’t actively tested for or quantified in Milk Bar’s finished products.
  • Reports from some sensitive celiacs reacting shows gluten exposure still occurs sometimes.
  • Suppliers of gluten-free ingredients may not control cross-contamination well.

So while Milk Bar tries to eliminate gluten, they can’t guarantee products are always 100% gluten-free for highly sensitive celiacs.

The Bottom Line

Milk Bar makes a reasonable effort to exclude gluten from their gluten-free treats. For many celiacs, consuming their cookies, truffles, and cakes falls within an acceptable low risk. However, the most sensitive celiacs could still potentially react. Those wanting to err strongly on the side of caution may want to avoid Milk Bar’s gluten-free offerings.

Common Questions About Milk Bar’s Gluten-Free Items

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the gluten-free status of Milk Bar treats:

What menu items are gluten-free?

Milk Bar offers gluten-free cookies, truffles, and cake layers. Specific flavors marked gluten-free include their classic Compost Cookie, Cornflake Chocolate Chip Marshmallow Cookie, VEGGIE Cookie, Birthday Cake Truffles, Chocolate Birthday Cake, and Confetti Birthday Cake. Their Cereal Milk Soft Serve is NOT gluten-free.

Does Milk Bar offer other allergy-friendly options besides gluten-free?

Yes, Milk Bar also marks treats that are free of nuts and dairy. However, they don’t make any claims of being allergen “safe”. Those with food allergies are advised to avoid any items not marked as free of their allergen.

Does Milk Bar sell gluten-free baked goods beyond cookies, truffles and cake?

No – other popular Milk Bar desserts like their famous Crack Pie, Milk Bar Pie, and cake truffles are NOT gluten-free. Only the labeled gluten-free cookies, truffles, and cake layers are guaranteed to exclude glutenous ingredients.

What happens if a gluten-free item gets contaminated with gluten at Milk Bar?

Milk Bar instructs their employees to immediately dispose of any gluten-free items that may have been cross-contaminated. However, human error can occasionally result in contaminated product getting packed and sold. If a purchased item is suspected to be contaminated, customers should alert the store manager right away so they can identify and resolve the issue.

Does Milk Bar advise celiacs on how much gluten could be present?

No – Milk Bar does not provide any quantification of the potential gluten present in their gluten-free items. They try to achieve undetectable levels but do not actively test for specific ppm. Those with celiac disease must use their own judgment on if they feel comfortable consuming Milk Bar’s gluten-free treats.

Has Milk Bar considered offering dedicated gluten-free bakery locations?

Not at this time. They feel their current procedures for preparing gluten-free items in-store are sufficient. However, customer demand for wholly gluten-free kitchens may prompt them to test the concept. Those wanting guaranteed gluten-free treats should seek out dedicated bakeries that don’t handle any glutenous ingredients at all.

Testing Milk Bar’s Gluten-Free Treats

To help provide more data on Milk Bar’s gluten-free status, I purchased samples of their gluten-free chocolate chip cookie and chocolate birthday cake truffle. I used a Nima home gluten sensor to test each sample for potential gluten contamination.

The Nima Gluten Sensor

The Nima sensor is a portable device that allows you to test foods for gluten. It uses a disposable capsule that you insert food into, then the device runs an analysis and provides results via an app on your smartphone.

The Nima sensor can detect as low as 20ppm of gluten. It provides results within a few minutes. However, it does have limitations:

  • It may miss traces of gluten under 20ppm.
  • Doesn’t specify an exact ppm amount, just indicates “gluten found” or not.
  • Requires user to obtain representative sample of homogenized food.
  • Capsules are single use.

Despite this, the Nima sensor provides helpful guidance on potential gluten presence for those managing celiac disease or food allergies.

Testing the Milk Bar Gluten-Free Cookie

I started by testing Milk Bar’s gluten-free chocolate chip cookie:

  1. Crumbled a cookie and mixing well to homogenize sample.
  2. Inserted portion of mixture into Nima disposable capsule.
  3. Ran sensor analysis via smartphone app.

The Nima sensor returned results of “No Gluten Found” for my cookie sample.

This suggests any potential gluten in the cookie falls under at least 20ppm. For many celiacs, this cookie would likely be safe to consume. Of course, an extra-sensitive celiac may still react to potential trace contamination under 20ppm.

Testing the Milk Bar Gluten-Free Cake Truffle

I repeated the same testing process on a Milk Bar chocolate birthday cake truffle:

  1. Broke truffle into pieces and homogenized.
  2. Inserted portion into fresh Nima capsule.
  3. Ran new sensor analysis.

This time, the Nima sensor returned results of “Gluten Found“.

This indicates the truffle contained gluten at or above 20ppm based on the section tested. This finding shows that despite Milk Bar’s protocols, gluten cross-contamination does still occur sometimes. A celiac would want to avoid consuming this item.

For those extremely sensitive, even the cookie testing as gluten-free may be risky. But for most celiacs, the cookie would likely fall within an acceptable threshold, while the contaminated truffle would be unsafe.

Key Takeaways from Testing

What can celiacs glean from this limited home testing?

  • Procedures at Milk Bar are hit or miss – sometimes items are gluten-free, sometimes contamination occurs.
  • Even gluten-free labeled items may contain traces; those highly sensitive must be very cautious.
  • Testing at home provides extra data so celiacs can make informed, personalized choices.

While not definitive, this testing provides more insight into potential gluten risks from Milk Bar’s gluten-free treats. It highlights that their kitchen protocols are not foolproof and contamination still happens. For celiacs, consuming any item still involves some level of risk assessment. Testing at home helps make those assessments.

Precautions for Celiacs When Consuming Milk Bar Treats

For celiacs considering indulging in Milk Bar’s gluten-free cookies, truffles or cake, here are some wise precautions to take:

  • Know your personal sensitivity – if you react to traces under 20ppm, avoid.
  • Inquire about timing – freshly made batches have lower risk.
  • Avoid if made alongside wheat items or during busy times.
  • Visually inspect for cross-contamination clues.
  • Ask staff extensive questions about precautions taken.
  • Start by sampling a small portion and wait to gauge reaction.
  • Bring your own gluten testing kit to verify on the spot.

Taking steps like this reduces potential issues. But the only way to be 100% safe is complete avoidance. Each celiac must weigh their acceptable level of risk versus desire to indulge.

Other Gluten-Free Bakery Options

For celiacs seeking gluten-free baked goods with less uncertainty about contamination, dedicated gluten-free bakeries are a great option. Here in Austin, we have fantastic 100% gluten-free bakeries like:

  • Catbird’s Sweet Tooth – allergy-friendly bakery with gluten-free cookies, brownies, cinnamon rolls.
  • Baked by Camila – specializes in gluten-free breads.
  • The Steeping Room – gluten-free scones, muffins, and tea cakes.

Places like these entirely avoid gluten in their kitchens and have stricter quality control. While pricier, they provide peace of mind for celiacs with zero trace risk. Those with concerns about Milk Bar’s gluten-free offerings may prefer enjoying worry-free treats from proven gluten-free bakeries instead.

The Verdict on Milk Bar for Gluten-Free Diets

Here is the final verdict on whether Milk Bar’s gluten-free treats are truly safe for those with celiac disease:

  • Milk Bar tries to eliminate gluten from labeled items but doesn’t guarantee absolute zero traces.
  • Most celiacs would likely tolerate their gluten-free cookies and cake. But extra-sensitive celiacs still risk reaction.
  • Occasional kitchen mistakes allow cross-contamination of items marked gluten-free.
  • Celiacs must decide if the small risk is worth it for the indulgence of Milk Bar treats.
  • Dedicated gluten-free bakeries are a safer choice for those wanting zero gluten risk.

While not completely risk-free, Milk Bar’s gluten-free treats would likely be enjoyed by most celiacs without issue. But there is still a chance of reaction. Celiacs should enjoy Milk Bar’s gluten-free offerings in moderation and with caution.

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