When Is Gluten Free Not Wheat Free & Costa Gluten Free Chocolate Brownie

When is gluten free not wheat free?

This question started in the highly salubrious location of a dark car park of the Watford Gap service station (northbound) on the M1 on a Friday night. We were on our way to Yorkshire for the weekend to see family. Having had a long, slow trundle through central London we stopped at the Watford Gap for a quick pit stop. Having stopped on a previous trip in another motorway service station for a gluten free lunch where my only option was a forlorn salad consisting of a few pieces of limp Iceberg lettuce and tiny grating of Cheddar cheese for £5, I didn’t plan on eating until we reached our destination.

Watford Gap Macdonald’s was packed with 4 coach loads of school kids on their way home from a school trip. Costa Coffee, meanwhile, was empty. We wandered in to see if there might be anything for me. Lo and behold, a round sticker on the front of the biscuit stand by the till pronounced that the Costa chocolate brownie was gluten free. Yippee, I thought. Yippee, thought Mr D who now had an excuse to have one too. We walked back to the car and as I opened the plastic wrapper of the brownie, I turned it over to see how many calories were in it. Who knows why I bothered, let’s face it, it wasn’t going to be good news. But it wasn’t the calorific value that stopped me, it was that in the allergy section I saw it contained “wheat”.

So I’m standing in a dark car park and I can’t read the small print of the ingredients (or the calorie value for that matter), I can only see “wheat” in the allergy box because it was in a bigger font size. Should I eat it?

How can a brownie be gluten free but not wheat free, I wondered?

I checked with 2011’s answer to Encyclopaedia Britannica…..and took to Twitter! “Gluten free wheat starch” came the (many) responses. Then the conversation moved on to whether it contained new (20 ppm) or old (200 ppm) Codex wheat starch. By this point my internet reception had more or less evaporated, the brownie had been jettisoned and I’d dug out an Eat Natural bar from the emergency gluten free travel stash.

But I was intrigued. I knew from the Twitter responses that I wasn’t alone in being confused about the Costa brownie along with the wider questions of Codex wheat starch and gluten free labelling. If you would like to read more about gluten free wheat starch you can read here and for more information on new gluten free labelling rules please click here.

I wrote to Costa who kindly provided the following response.

“Thank you for your email regarding our Chocolate Brownie. I do apologise for any confusion we may have caused regarding this product.

I can confirm that this product contains gluten-reduced wheat, which is specially formulated to remove the gluten to an acceptable level, which meets the current requirement for the codex standards. . The wheat starch used within the product is a gluten-reduced wheat specially formulated to remove the gluten to an acceptable level to meet the requirements of the codex standards. The amount used in the product is less than 2% and less than 200 parts per million. The final product is tested to ensure it meets the correct guidelines and one sample is tested from each batch and if the values are over 200 parts per million the batch will not be sent to Costa.

As an update we have reprinted the packaging to state the product contains ‘gluten free wheat starch’ so it is clearer that the product is definitely gluten free but it will still not be wheat free for those customers who are intolerant to wheat.

Your feedback is important to us and I have also passed your comments onto our Marketing Team who will be closely monitoring all feedback on this product.”

I then replied to Costa Coffee and asked them to confirm whether they planned to change the recipe of the brownie to meet the new Codex wheat starch standard of 20 ppm. I received the following reply:

“The Costa Gluten Free Chocolate Brownie was originally designed with the new legislation in mind. And each finished batch is tested and contains less than 20 ppm gluten.

The gluten free wheat starch used in the Costa Gluten Free Chocolate Brownie contains less than 200ppm gluten. The gluten free wheat starch is used in the mix at around 1% so the final amount of gluten in the finished product is less than the new limit of 20 ppm gluten, this is verified by testing each batch before its release from the manufacturing bakery.

I hope this information is helpful.“

Therefore the Costa Coffee brownie IS correctly labelled as gluten free and the product is in line with the new 20 ppm Codex gluten limit.

In summary, can you eat the Costa coffee gluten free brownie?

I am Coeliac or gluten intolerant:

Yes, unless you are unable to tolerate Codex gluten free wheat starch (some Coeliacs can’t). This product is correctly labelled as gluten free and each batch is tested to confirm it contains less than 20 ppm of gluten.

I have a wheat allergy or intolerance:

No, this product contains wheat and you cannot eat it

Do you find gluten free labelling confusing? How do you think gluten free and other allergy labelling could be improved by food producers? Please do feel free to leave comments and let me know your thoughts on gluten free labelling.


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  1. Simon Reynolds
    December 1, 2011 / 1:50 pm

    The brownie is fine, but what about the coffee? I was pretty shocked to see this:


    Not sure how reliable this info is (it seems to be an area still under research) but I’ve always had a hunch that coffee didn’t agree with me.

    All the best,

    • December 6, 2011 / 9:35 pm

      Simon, thanks for stopping by and providing the link.

      I have zero medical training so don’t think I can comment on how reliable the information is. However, I didn’t find it particularly convincing. For example the Dr says there’s a lab doing cross-reactivity testing for gluten and coffee but then can’t say which lab is doing this test / research or provide any references to investigate further. Hmmmmm….

      Having said this, coffee doesn’t seem agree with me either. But perhaps a double espresso before breakfast was too much of a hit on the digestive system!

  2. December 3, 2011 / 11:09 am

    I find gluten free labeling very confusing and I don’t think it will get any better until there is an international coding standard for what gluten free means. I think then labeling would become standardised and we would understand it better.
    I guess the Australian and New Zealand standards are easier. They are “no detectable gluten” so in the case of the Costa Coffee brownie, it wouldn’t be called gluten free.

    • December 6, 2011 / 9:58 pm

      Thanks for drawing my attention to look at gluten free labelling in Australia and New Zealand. I was really interested to read that the “no detectable gluten” limit is now 3 ppm in Aus / NZ.

      I completely agree that life would be so much easier if there was a single international coding standard for the level of gluten in food as well as a standardisation of how labels appear on packets.

  3. angela
    August 14, 2013 / 2:42 am

    Thank you for clarification about Costa’s chocolate brownie having wheat starch. I thought i was in heaven when i ate three of these in a few days but…..i felt unwell as i would had i consumed wheat, as I am wheat intolerant. I just didn’t link it until something prompted me to do a web search. I had asked the manager to keep a couple in the fridge too. What a shame !!
    The moral of this story….always read the small print !!! Will still have a latte though unless the coffee plantations are subject to exposure from the wheatgrains via winds. Say it isn’t so 🙂

    • September 7, 2013 / 9:11 am

      Sorry to hear that you were unwell after eating one of these brownies. But thank you for taking the time to leave a comment – you’re right reading the small print is so important, but when you’re hungry and need something quickly it can be easy to forget!

      I’m currently enjoying good cup of coffee – thankfully that’s definitely gluten free.