Thursday, June 18, 2015

La Boulange: Taking Gluten Too Far?

Something seemed slightly off from the beginning with Starbucks’ conversion to La Boulange pastries. Starbucks has been trying to position itself as a leader in food quality, so it made sense that it was dropping artificial colors and trans fats from its pastry case. In contrast, with some of the La Boulange pastries, especially the croissants, Starbucks was taking on what seemed to be the highest gluten levels in desserts among all major U.S. restaurant chains. (Analytic gluten levels of food products aren’t normally disclosed and are hard to come by, so that is only a guess based on the physical qualities of the final products.) U.S. consumers have become at least suspicious of gluten over the last 20 years, so for Starbucks to boldly position itself as the go-to place for gluten seemed like a mistake.

Gluten is essentially a junk protein with no nutritional significance, but it is valued for the way it adds stickiness and elasticity to food. Think of gluten as the glue in wheat flour. Anything made from wheat contains gluten. People who are highly gluten-sensitive can’t eat anything made from wheat at all. However, some flour has more gluten than others, and even people who wouldn’t think of themselves as gluten-sensitive can have a discernible reaction to the super-high gluten levels in something like a croissant. (Other food with weirdly high levels of gluten can include pizza and certain imitation meats.) Starbucks’ sales experience bears this out. Wherever they are introduced, the La Boulange croissants are a hot item at first, selling twice as fast as anything else, but that lasts only for a couple of months. By the end of the first year, the croissants are reliably the one pastry left unsold at the end of the night. There aren’t any complaints and croissants contain no more food energy than Starbucks’ other desserts, but there is something about them that doesn’t sit right, so that customers are subconsciously driven to try something different next time.

Food scientists swear that 2015 gluten is the same as 1990 gluten, but the new reactions to high-gluten foods hint that something may have changed. At any rate, Starbucks has collected its sales data and has apparently concluded it can’t buck the anti-gluten trend. It is keeping the La Boulange name and many of the desserts, but in its statement it specifically mentions only the low-gluten and gluten-free items such as the lemon loaf and marshmallow bar. The separate La Boulange pastry shops, an experiment in California, will close by September, along with three La Boulange factories (some sources say two) in California. The executive in charge of La Boulange is out. It is as close to a U-turn as a national restaurant chain can make without directly admitting it made a mistake.

I see the La Boulange experiment as a turning point for the food sector as a whole. I can’t imagine any more large-scale experiments with new high-gluten foods from any major restaurant chain, aside from the pizza restaurants, as long as the anti-gluten trend continues. Rather, the big-money interests in food will be looking for ways they can reduce their reliance on gluten.