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Got to be Gluten-Free

For over ten years I’ve worked with celiac disease and gluten intolerance support groups, long before “going gluten-free” was a fad endorsed by celebrities.  Though I don’t have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity; I’ve planned and attended at least twenty gluten-free events, attended multiple educational sessions about celiac disease and the  gluten-free diet and sampled countless gluten-free cookies, cakes, donuts,  crackers and breads at shows and expos.
Initially I found most of the baked items or items made from gluten-free mixes to be inferior to gluten containing products.  The texture was often gritty or gummy and frequently the dessert items were oversweet.  As time went on gluten-free items improved and it became more common that I would find myself thinking, “…this doesn’t taste too bad.”.  In recent years gluten-free products have hit the mainstream and the taste, price, and in many cases, the nutrition profile of the ingredients,has improved.

Ardenne Farm mixes can be found in about 100 Ingles stores in the gluten-free section

When I first encountered the gluten-free dessert items made from Ardenne Farms mixes  I approached them warily.   As I sampled them I found myself thinking, “..this doesn’t taste gluten-free – they taste really good!”.  It’s a tribute to the hard work of Ardenne Farm owners, (and wife and husband))  Kathy Milner and Joe McKay, that they have managed to create mixes that produce such good tasting gluten-free products.  Currently Ardenne Farm gluten-free mixes can be found at about 100 Ingles stores throughout the Southeast.
Ardenne Farm was born out of Kathy and Joe’s originally business, American Quality Foods, that started in Vermont in the 1990’s.  Eventually they ended up in a 17,000 square foot facility in Mills River, North Carolina. American Quality Foods provides sugar-free mixes to schools, institutions and food service.  The day I visited the plant I received an e-mail from Kathy, “We have some construction going on so please park on the side of the building.”
Sure enough,  several men were hard at work on the foundation of what Kathy told me later will be their new 17,000 square foot dedicated gluten-free production facility.  This addition is slated to be operational in the fall of 2015.
Kathy and Victoria Lamberth, the Marketing  Communications Coordinator, and Kathy’s son, Jason McKay, the Operations Manager, showed me around the current facility that employees 43 full-time workers.  They anticipate hiring about 10 more full-time employees for the gluten-free facility.
The warehouse has high neatly stacked racks of ingredients.  Jason explained that gluten-free items are stored above gluten-containing ingredients to minimize risk of contamination.
For those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, the only treatment currently available is a gluten-free diet. One of the biggest concerns for someone with celiac disease is the risk of cross-contact and making sure the gluten-free products they consume are safe.   Jason explained the various points during production at which they check to make sure their products are free of contamination from gluten-containing ingredients and meet a 10ppm (parts per million) gluten standard ( less than the FDA’s minimum of 20ppm).
1. Mixing room – Before any of the Ardenne Farm mixes are made all machinery is disassembled and thoroughly cleaned.  This is usually done on a Friday so it dries over the weekend.  Surfaces are then swabbed and checked for the presence of gluten. If they test to more than 10ppm the machinery is disassembled and cleaned again.
2. Mixing room – After each batch is made a sample is pulled and tested  using an ELISA test to make sure it is 10ppm or less.
3. Packaging line – As each batch is packaged, a sample package is pulled and baked to make sure it tests to less than 10ppm.

Ardenne Farm mixes are tested to meet a 10ppm or less standard.

“At any point if it’s higher than 10ppm we have to start over again and not use that product.” explained Jason.
Back in the warehouse we discussed some of the ingredients for their gluten-free mixes. Although demand for some ingredients has increased Jason emphasized that they try and buy as much as possible regionally from North Carolina suppliers.

Ardenne Farm co-owner Kathy Milner in the test kitchen.

Kathy feels that their ingredients is one of the keys to the superior quality of their products,   “What we’re really trying to do is make the best tasting products using excellent ingredients. She continued, “So you don’t get that grainy texture we use a finely ground rice flour.” .

Victoria Lamberth sampling  products made with Ardenne Farm mixes at Ingles

Jason added, “We’re trying to get rid of that (negative) stereotype of the gluten-free taste.” To that end Ardenne Farms has worked hard to introduce their products to customers.  Often you will find Victoria or other Ardenne Farms employees  providing samples of their products at an Ingles store, during one of our Taste of Local events, at a gluten intolerance support group meeting or a food expo.
In the next year Kathy hopes to offer Ardenne Farm ready-to-eat gluten-free dessert items.  I asked her if she was sure she wanted me to include that and she said brightly, “Sure, it will hold us to it!”

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