I was recently contacted on Twitter by an enthusiastic representative of a company called Zeer.com about to release a gluten-free product database, and invited to a complimentary viewing of the site. The company offers “foodies” a variety of means to browse products by interest and gluten-free happens to be one of their most recent product categories. I’m not sure if “foodie” is really the appropriate title for their target market, as most foodies that I know are less excited about packaged, processed food and more interested in the potential of raw ingredients and international cooking techniques. But, since it sounds better than obsessive supermarket shopper, I guess we’ll have to allow them their tag-line.
This is a pay service, mind you, not a free one, so I think it should be held to a pretty high standard. At the stiff proposed fee of $14.95 a month, I would expect it to do your gluten-free shopping AND taxes, so let’s see how it measures up.
When you log into “Home” you see the following categories: Gluten Free Favorites, Popular Gluten Free Food (Random Category), Top Gluten Free Brands, and 89 click-through pages of New Gluten Free Products added this month. There is also a handy “Gluten Free Safety Status Key” with cute and easily recognizable icons that show you the gluten-free status of a product at a glance. Their safety categories include:
* Labeled as gluten free
* Appears to be gluten free
* May contain gluten
* Contains gluten
Some weird things- although categories of types of food (the favorites) are listed and seem reasonable, there are some issues with how things are categorized. Product organization needs some serious help. There are currently 244 products listed under cake, spread out over 12 pages. Fair enough, but what qualifies under this category? Apparently cake decorator sprinkles, Lundberg Lightly Salted Rice Cakes, donuts, and Barbie Edible Cake Decoration are all grouped under cake. Searching by “relevance” gets me cake sugar sprinkles at #1 and Marzipan at #2. Relevant to who, exactly? Not to knock cake sprinkles, but unless you’ve got a killer gluten-free cake UNDER the sugar sprinkles, that’s going to be one disappointed 5 year old at her birthday party. There should be a way to limit search by prepared CAKE (And I don’t mean mochi), CAKE dry mix, and cake accessories. And please, let’s leave the savory items out because when I think gooey gluten-free chocolate cake Lundberg’s dry cardboard fest is simply not going to work.
The beer section also needs more research. There must be at least eight genuine gluten-free beers on the market, and Zeer only lists two, with the rest of their meager selection dedicated to hard cider. I love hard cider, but is it a beer? Really? And where are the other players in the field, please.
There should also be a way to sort products by company name. The drop-down menu allows to sort by “Product Name” but this just gives me a page of the company’s stuff lowest on the alphabet. What if I hate Ener-g Foods but would really like to see all that Kinnikinnick has to offer? Why can’t I easily do this in their menu?
One other drawback to this site that I see immediately is that there is no way to find the product for purchase. I may be very excited by a product and now know almost everything about it after seeing it on this site- except for how on earth I can acquire it. Since this site seems most appropriate for those new to the gluten-free diet, I would have to think this would be a frustrating limitation. Contact info has an address or a phone number- but where is the company web page? Where is a link to a service like Amazon that can actually sell me the product directly? Yes, a gluten-free veteran will probably go straight to Amazon or search for the company web site themselves, but why doesn’t Zeer provide it easily for you? If it is due to concerns over seeming like a commercial site—it is already a pay site so I think hopes of seeming in it for the altruism is out. Let’s make this site more convenient for the user and perform a service from start to finish- from the research stage to the expansion of our diets in a meaningful way.
One other concern I have is that under “New Products” we see 617 Products have been added. This is very exciting. On closer look, it becomes less so. Skittles, lemonade, tomato sauce, and baby formula are some of the exciting new products added. Skittles might be worth a skip in heart rate, perhaps, if you go for that sort of thing, but many of the products are extremely obscure or of questionable gluten-free status (and thus, of questionable worth to the category). If a company has not been contacted to find out about cross contamination on the production lines, but the label looks ok, how is it helpful for me to see the product on their site?
In general, this is my question about Zeer.com’s gluten-free product database. Does this site really perform a valuable service for the gluten-free community and is it worth the cost? There are some things I do like about the site, so let me mention those now. One, every product on Zeer is shown with a current (hopefully) ingredient list and nutrition facts. I am a little nervous about those ingredient lists, as some mainstream companies literally change their label (and tweak ingredients) every time they run it, with the product sometimes containing wheat or sometimes containing corn depending on manufacturing cost. Companies often tell you to “look at the label” but if the label is online, how can the web site possibly keep up with or stay informed? But back to the positive- there IS an ingredient listing. Also, even more interestingly, certain key terms that may cause concern to the newly diagnosed gluten-free person are highlighted on that ingredient list. (Key terms include things like “Natural Flavorings” or “Maltodextrin”.) If you click on those terms then you are taken to an excellent explanation of the legal status of those terms in the United States, with a discussion of risk. From a cursory read, it seems that Zeer’s information is current with the position of most US Celiac Research Organizations and this feature alone is very valuable for breaking the code of label-reading on a gluten-free diet. Once you’ve explored the site a bit, you may have learned how to do it on your own, which is definitely a plus. There is also a feature which allows you to rate and review the product, a feature that will become helpful IF Zeer succeeds in getting a large customer base with product experience that writes reviews of those products. One additional positive is that the database can be searched not only by typed brand or product name, but also by UPC code. The latter seems unique to the Zeer service.
So is Zeer providing a needed service that is worth the cost of subscription? When I first heard about Zeer’s new gluten-free product database, to tell you the truth I wasn’t terribly interested in it. I am quite active in Celiac forums and in gluten-centric Twitter circles, and I spend a lot of time in health food stores checking out new products. I’ve also been eating gluten-free for thirty years and feel very comfortable reading labels. I don’t really need a tutorial in it (although I appreciate the feature), and currently it seems there are limitations to the number of new products Zeer could introduce to me that I’d find relevant. (Cake sprinkles don’t really cut it, unfortunately.) Companies like Amazon.com, Gluten Free Mall, and even Drugstore.com have extremely extensive gluten-free product listings and allow you to actually purchase the item in question. They’ve been around for longer than Zeer (which I believe is still in Beta testing), so their organizing features are somewhat more user-friendly. They also have a lot more customers, and thus many more relevant reviews of those products than Zeer can currently offer. And, most appealing of all, it is free to browse Amazon, and they don’t charge for information about the product. Granted, you may find that product has limited information- while established products should have current ingredients listed and even may have nutrition facts, they may not always immediately have that information. However, as we found recently, brand new products like the Betty Crocker Gluten Free Brownie Mix may not yet have ingredient information posted, which may be frustrating for those wondering if they can or can not have the product in question due to additional allergens. It remains to be seen if Zeer will be ahead of the curve and able to offer cutting edge information on new gluten-free products, although when I tried to do a search for Betty Crocker Gluten Free Brownie on Zeer, I got no results at all. (Cough Cough)
So, to conclude, I’m not sure that Zeer has much to offer the gluten-free community that goes beyond what one can get from existing services like Amazon. It seems to me they are trying to cash in on the fad of the “g-free diet” but without thinking enough about the quality (not quantity) of information they are offering. If they were to improve the organization of their product information and make this information more meaningful and useful to their subscribers, then perhaps I could recommend them more enthusiastically. However, with a big fat price tag of almost fifteen dollars a month, I don’t think it is worth it. I could buy an entire bulk box of gluten-free flours for fifteen dollars… or seven delicious gluten-free nutmeal cookies from Mariposa Bakery… or get a gluten-free pizza at a pizza joint once a month for that price. To my mind, it would have made more sense for Zeer to operate as a giant Amazon associate or similar and make their money off of companies selling their products, rather than billing the gluten-free client directly. Isn’t the gluten-free diet expensive enough?
This is just my opinion as a gluten-free veteran, used to digging for information in the trenches. What do you, my followers of the gluten-free lifestyle think? Are you in the market for a product review site like Zeer, and does it sound like it would be valuable to you personally? If so, why? Or if not, why not? Please tell me in the comments.
A gluten-free fellow blogger friend at Twitter commented on this issue, saying that Zeer isn’t necessary “when you have plenty of gluten-free bloggers reviewing products.” He had an excellent point, and happily, the conversation reminded me of an excellent gluten-free product review blog called Gluten-Free Food Reviews. Her site is a good example of what a quality review of a meaningful gluten-free product can offer the community, so I hope you will check it out. And, you don’t need your checkbook or Visa to peruse her site. ;)
For those who don’t mind paying a fee but find Zeer’s monthly fee a bit too stiff, you may want to check out the software available through Clan Thompson, a company that has offered gluten-free product software for years. Their software can be downloaded onto Windows, Palm OS, Mac OS X, iPhone, Pocket PC / Windows MobilePocket PC, or a BlackBerry. I haven’t used it myself but they definitely have a following.