Jovial launched a new certified gluten-free vegan mac and cheese in 2023. Unlike its brown rice pasta made on dedicated lines, its vegan mac “cheese” packet is made on shared equipment used to manufacture products containing wheat. This article includes information about what Jovial is doing to ensure the product’s safety and how the brand may be the latest victim of one of Nima’s infamous “false positives.” This article has been UPDATED on May 10, 2023 with important information from Jovial’s CEO. Please see my disclosures.
A few weeks ago, Jovial sent me a few boxes of its new gluten-free vegan mac and cheese. The box says the product is organic, dairy-free, and certified gluten-free by the GFCO.
My kids love mac & cheese, and I love the taste and texture of Jovial brown rice pasta, so I was thrilled to see Jovial’s version of this beloved childhood treat. I put the boxes in my pantry for safekeeping but had yet to make them.
A member of the gluten-free community (thanks, Steph!) noticed that the product page on the Jovial website said the mac and cheese was “made in a dedicated facility.” Below is a screenshot of the vegan mac product page as of April 19, 2023:
However, the company’s allergen page says the vegan mac is manufactured on “shared lines” in a shared facility. No other Jovial product is made with shared equipment, just the vegan mac.
Steph contacted Jovial for clarification and then shared her email exchange with the company in a private Facebook group for Nima Sensor users (more on Nima in a bit).
A Jovial spokesperson told her this was an “inconsistency,” clarifying that the pasta was made in a dedicated gluten-free facility in Italy, but the vegan mac is assembled in the U.S.
The spokesperson also said that while the product is “certified gluten-free,” the facility is not dedicated gluten-free, and the lines are “used for other production at other times.”
While the Jovial spokesperson said the company “tests each batch” to be certified gluten-free, she added that “there are runs of other products made at other times that contain wheat.”
Such information (i.e., “May Contain Wheat”) is not fully disclosed on the packaging itself; however, on the side of each box of mac and cheese, it says, “For detailed manufacturing facility information, please visit jovialfoods.com/allergen-information.”
Testing Jovial Vegan Mac for Hidden Gluten
Based on the information, I decided to test the vegan mac for hidden gluten using my Nima Sensor, a portable gluten-detecting device that enables consumers to test a small portion of their food for hidden gluten.
It takes 1-2 minutes for Nima to either display a smiley face, meaning it found no gluten, or a “Gluten Found” message. I encourage you to read more about Nima Sensor – and its limitations – before buying one.
I tested the vegan mac (twice) after realizing my first capsule had slightly expired. (It’s well known in the gluten-free community that expired Nima capsules work for several months after expiry; however, I used an unexpired test capsule to be extra vigilant in my reporting.)
UPDATE: Nima displayed a “Gluten Found” message on both tests, however, I removed the photo that showed Nima finding gluten since I firmly believe it was a false positive.
UPDATE: My Conversation With the CEO
I emailed Jovial to ask how much gluten (ppm) the company has reliably detected during its batch testing of the vegan mac. I also requested that Jovial comment about why it uses shared equipment with wheat for this product only.
In response, Frank Bergin, CEO of Jovial Foods, called me, and we briefly discussed my concerns. He confirmed that while the brown rice pasta is made in a certified gluten-free facility in Italy, the vegan cheese is made in a facility where gluten is present.
However, he said the facility takes measures to ensure no gluten is in the final product. In fact, many certified gluten-free products are made on shared equipment are okay for people with celiac disease to consume.
“We test that powder [vegan mac powder] when it is produced and prior to it arriving at our repacker,” he said. These are standard protocols set forth by third-party certifying agencies like the GFCO.
Furthermore, he said that the US repacker goes through “extensive cleaning and sanitation before producing our products as they are not dedicated gluten-free facilities,” noting that the repacker is audited and certified by the GFCO annually. (Read Certified Gluten-Free, but Made on Shared Equipment? to understand why certified gluten-free products are safe even when made on shared equipment.)
He also said that every production batch of the final assembled product must test below five ppm of gluten.
Bergin lamented that he wished there were more repackers with dedicated gluten-free facilities, but for now, “There is an incredibly small risk of cross-contamination,” adding, “It’s not zero risk, but we’ve been really transparent about all of the production risks.”
In an email, Bergin added, “This is a new product for us, so we have done extensive testing and sampling from the first production run and have had no issues or concerns until your email arrived. Our founders’ daughter, who inspired the birth of the company, has significant gluten sensitivities and has helped develop and test this product all along the way. She has had many servings from this first production run and had no issues.”
Bergin also added that he would meet with company partners next week to double-check testing and production processes even though he has the “utmost confidence in the products.”
I also offered to send him the sample I tested, and he accepted.
UPDATE: Jovial Independently Tested the Vegan Mac
I sent the same package of vegan mac to Bergin, who said he would do additional testing. He seemed sincerely concerned about the potential for gluten contamination and took the Nima allegations seriously.
Bergin and his team used their own Nima Sensor to test the vegan mac I sent him, along with another package from the same production line. Both tested positive for gluten.
However, Jovial took things one step further and sent the products to an advanced testing lab to perform a Neogen Veratox test, which can accurately detect gluten as low as 2.5 ppm.
The lab found NO gluten “below the level of quantification.”
Bergin also told me he spoke with the company’s raw material suppliers and the manufacturer, who assured him there are “incredibly low odds of cross-contamination.”
UPDATE: Unpacking This Information
Like many people in the gluten-free community, I’m trying to understand and unpack what is and isn’t safe to consume.
I offer this advice to the gluten-free community:
You Can 100% Trust Jovial Pasta: Jovial is a name the gluten-free community has come to know and trust over the years. The company has consistently made its award-winning brown rice pasta on dedicated gluten-free lines and is committed to producing products that test under five ppm of gluten.
You Can Eat the Vegan Mac: Many certified gluten-free products are produced on shared equipment with wheat, and such revelations should not deter you from enjoying a product. Testing also offers assurance that this product is 100 percent GF and safe.
Nima Was Wrong: It’s apparent that the vegan mac is the latest victim of Nima’s infamous “false positives,” highlighting one of the serious limitations of the testing device.
I exchanged emails with David DellaFave, CEO of Nima Partners to understand why this false positive happened in the first place.
He said he didn’t know why the pasta consistency tested positive with Nima, but he peppered me with a lot of questions about how much powder and water I added to the test capsule, suggesting that it’s “possible” this was a case of “slow flow,” which means the powder wasn’t diluted enough.
He also assured me he would conduct follow-up testing to determine if it was a “slow flow” issue and that he would contact me and Jovial’s CEO with further information. (TBD)
Don’t Panic: I recommend that the gluten-free community continue to trust products labeled “gluten-free” and “certified gluten-free” until proven otherwise. The vast majority of these products are a-okay. There is no need for the community to avoid such safe foods. Doing so would be an over-restriction.
Be Vigilant But Not Obsessive: It’s important that the gluten-free community stays up-to-date on information and never becomes complacent. I recommend subscribing to my free newsletter to stay current on trends, news, safety warnings, recalls, and the latest Nima Sensor tests. I also recommend following the Gluten-Free Watchdog on Facebook.
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