Why has FG Roberts become a totally gluten free manufacturer?

Published on June 28, 2017 at 12:00 AM

JUNE 2017 


I have suffered from life-long problems with dairy fat, fructans in wheat, fructose, anti-inflammatories, Sulphur di-oxide, MSG (monosodium glutamate: a flavor enhancer), excessive nightshade (tomato, aubergene, potato and capsicum), sodium and sugar exposure. A hot chilli laden dish, like Singapore Noodles, causing my nose to start running almost instantly. Excessive nightshade consumption also bringing arthritic and inflammation issues in my joints, especially in my hands and fingers. I eat butter and cheese extremely sparingly as bingeing on cheese, for example and much as I like cheese, quickly produces raging headaches, bunged up eyes, badly swollen throat glands, a blocked nose, ear aches, intense bouts of sneezing and heavy releases of mucus from lungs, throat and sinuses for about a week. I have learnt to listen to my body and to realize that, for me, dairy consumption simply isn’t worth it: the adverse side effects are dire and debilitating. Many other people also have issues with varying and unpredictable combinations of milk protein, lactose intolerance/fermentation and some with the anti-biotic and cortisone residues left in milk. I also have fructose malabsorption, dehydration and headache problems from and a strong dislike of the body odor and breath issues associated with garlic. A sniff is fine but much more and I suffer. While not Coeliac, I have found that excessive wheat product and bread consumption does not agree with me primarily due to fructans, a fermentable wheat sugar. Coeliac disease and its associated gut damage also predisposing many individuals to many of the issues I suffer from. My reading about, personal experience and understanding of these overlapping factors have been potent drivers in my uncompromising approach to the running, developing and differentiation of our business. They have also provided me with the knowledge to understand and manage my own health issues as well as in having empathy for others who, often unwittingly and unthinkingly, suffer from a variety of food allergy and intolerance issues. As I age and my appetite declines I am also increasingly interested in the nutritional quality, density and adequacy of the products we produce and the foods that I eat. I am gravely concerned that many older men, in particular, are malnourished due to the fundamentally poor quality of the food many of them are provided with and are consuming. In the midst of seemingly plentiful food, I see this as one of the major issues confronting the world’s aging populations: a problem the world has never previously had to face.

In 1988, while broadening my horizons and skills via a Master of Business Administration (MBA) Degree, I used various aspects of the business for my assignments: applying the various results directly to the day to day running of the business. Many of the ideas which evolved from these studies are still being implemented, developed and refined, including:

  1. A greater use of digital technology to improve automation and enhance productivity. For example, we have automated the entire start up process for our flour milling operation to save 4.5 hours per day using modular PLC technology;
  2. A fully integrated inventory and serial batch-tracking system, prior to the advent of the now common SAP systems, to improve stock management and enable full traceability of all ingredients and finished products;
  3. A completely new and interactive, spreadsheet costing system, to better capture and manage all the cost inputs including the labor, packaging and overheads related to the production rate for each specific product. With the company taking the view that each product should be costed on its own merits: with the price of any product, fully and accurately reflecting all of its specific input costs to enable us to identify production bottlenecks and to make fully informed decisions about the worthiness and viability of any particular product;
  4. A very careful review of our corporate roots and philosophy, product range and production including how to build upon them to more clearly differentiate the company, brand and products with the decision being made to become a completely gluten free facility with a completely gluten free product range as our production was already more than 85% gluten free;
  5. The same review also re-focused our attention upon anaphylaxis, fermentable sugar issues, food allergies and intolerances, low sodium, low sugar use, minimal use of overly refined ingredients like white sugar and the avoidance of artificial additives, including the artificial sugars or polyols like aspartame.
  6. A careful consideration of how to expand our production capabilities and expertise, reduce cross-contamination issues and better integrate our milling and blending operations;

Item 4, in particular, starting a whole new business phase, while also reviving and extending the corporate philosophy of our founder, FG Roberts, who favored the use of wholegrain, minimally processed grains and ingredients and was strongly opposed to artificial food additives, refined foods and excessive consumption of gluten. All these factors being part of his health management regimes going well back into the 1930’s and 40’s. This unique opportunity also arising from my chance and timely attendance at a diabetes (the latter often overlapping with Coeliac Disease) seminar during my MBA studies. Among the flyers left on the theatre seats was a recipe for making gluten free plain flour using our debittered soy flour, as one ingredient. Also, having attended a number of the lecturer’s vegan cooking courses, I was very generously invited on stage to talk about our products and to ask about the commercial need for a gluten free flour product, like the formulation in the handout information. To my surprise, all 150 or so people in the audience, most of whom were Coeliacs with diabetic issues or family members, put both hands up. It also very quickly became clear that most objected to having butts of ingredients around and to the messiness of making their own flour mixes; there were also significant issues with reactivity within and variability in the functionality of their mixes primarily due to the age, quality and moisture contents of the rice flours and potato starches etc. they were using. There was also demand for a reliable gluten free, self-raising, flour as the readily available crème of tartar reacted too quickly. We quickly replaced the potato with tapioca starch due to the Sulphur-dioxide content of and deadly nightshade status of the potato starch. We added soy fibre flour and Hi-maize and initially used wholegrain maize flour to increase the dietary fibre content. We improved the consistency of the rice flour used. These were all routine and easily addressed problems. We quickly evolved our gluten free plain and self- raising flours from the handout formulation. This fundamental change of direction taking more than a decade to fully implement as we progressively phased out ingredients, processes, products and modified our plant to eliminate and/or minimize cross contamination opportunities and also to make it easier to inspect, clean and use the plant for processing multiple raw materials. A very capital-intensive process requiring clear foresight and deep commitment.

Along the way, we phased out the wholegrain maize flour for flavor and salicylate reasons. We also encountered reactivity problems within our mixes due to the moisture contents, water, micro-biological and enzyme activity of various ingredients, which we progressively overcame by sourcing and adopting dryer ingredients. Our steam stabilizing and milling of our own wholegrain white and brown rice flours also overcoming some of the latter problems and enabling us to improve the nutritional content and flavor of our flours as our new rice flours were lower in moisture content and micro-biological activity and not oxidized and rancid as the raw rice flours previously used often were. Our steam stabilized rice flours also contained the fat, fibre and nutrients of the rice bran and germ which the previous raw and higher moisture content rice flours did not. We progressively refined and developed our products and also expanded our knowledge of vegetable fibers and gums as we evolved our expertise. In 1988, in Australia, it was permissible to add 3g of gluten per kilogram, to gain the gluten functionality, to a gluten free product. After an intensive review of the few locally available products and world literature we made the commitment to develop and make totally gluten free products: a commitment we intend to retain despite the impending and proposed re-definition of gluten free as containing less than 20 ppm (parts per million) or milligrams per kilogram of gluten. This proposed change will enable the entry of more and larger players into the industry, which may benefit the consumer. However, we remain concerned about its impact on the integrity of the industry and its impact upon the numerous individuals who are sensitive to gluten at less than 5 ppm.

We also addressed the nutritional and dietary issues of eating gluten free including that of excessive starch consumption and inadequate levels of dietary fibre, protein and other nutrients. The other potent issue was flavor: when we started in the industry you wouldn’t eat most of the available gluten free offerings, many of which contained excessive sodium, unless you were Coeliac and had to. We committed to making gluten free foods which at least matched their mainstream equivalents for flavor, aroma and eye appeal. We also remain committed to making staple, savory products, which can be adapted for sweet applications, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack applications. We remain concerned that much of the gluten free industry seems to be pre-occupied with the making of chocolate biscuits and mud cakes: luxury products which are high in fat, sugar and salt and predispose us to obesity and diabetes: products which should be eaten extremely sparingly and in many instances probably not all. It has taken many years for us to develop the necessary ingredient knowledge and expertise to make and supply the necessary products. Many of us taking for granted the millennia of development that have gone into baking bread, making pastry, beer, wine and many other commonly accepted and readily available mainstream products. Much has had to be learned and techniques evolved to make gluten free products work. I am pleased to say that in the 30 years since our initial involvement in the industry, a significant industry and body of products has since evolved. My extensive reading and study in field has also lead to a heightened awareness as to how and why many of these health and dietary issues overlap and interact with one another.