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I've been getting a lot of messages lately asking about Costa Coffee and whether it's drinks are safe for people with coeliac disease.
There's been some mixed messaging over recent weeks from the store and I wanted to try and get all my thoughts down in one place.
And if ever there was a definition for give with one hand, take away with the other, I'm pretty sure Costa Coffee would be it.
Because while they've brought out the new gluten free sandwich us coeliacs have been waiting for for YEARS, they've also made most of their milks unsafe for us.
Confused? Let me explain...
A brief history of gluten free at Costa Coffee
In 2021 the coffee chain announced it would be using gluten free oat milk, which meant all of the milks used were 100% gluten free.
Then in January 2022 the chain back-tracked, changing it's all of dairy free drinks from the Alpro range to the AdeZ range.
Both Costa Coffee and AdeZ are owned by Coca Cola, so it appears this move would keep everything in-house.
However, the AdeZ oat milk is NOT gluten free.
And it's coconut and soya milks have a 'may contain' warning for gluten, making them unsafe for people with coeliac disease.
Both the AdeZ almond milk and the standard cows' milk used in Costa Coffee are gluten free with no 'may contain' warnings.
Just take a look at the allergen matrix here, or the example screenshot taken from it below (C = may contain traces of, N = none present)
So how does this all add up when it comes to working out if Costa's drinks are safe for people with coeliac disease?
Short answer: it's bloody confusing.
But there's a new Costa gluten free sandwich?
To top it all off, just three months after removing pretty much all its gluten free milks, Costa have FINALLY brought back a gluten free sandwich.
Costa Coffee used to offer a gluten free wrap but haven't had any sandwiches or wraps in stock since it's gluten free Christmas wrap in 2016.
But now the chain is offering an M&S chicken and bacon gluten free sandwich and it's part of the meal deal.
So if you're happy with black coffee (or a white tea or coffee with cold, dairy or almond milk) then happy days.
But if not, where does the chain stand on it's allergy training and it's steps to reduce any cross contamination with the 'un-coeliac-friendly' milks?
Costa Coffee and 'that' tweet
Now would probably be a good time to address the spate of Tweets sent out by Costa's PR/social media team in early March 2022.
In response to a Dad asking about whether the milk was steamed safe for his gluten free daughter, he was met with the following reply:
To clarify, heat does NOT sterilise or destroy gluten.
Gluten is not a germ, it's not something you can just eliminate with a bit of steam to 'clean it up'.
Otherwise surely no-one with coeliac disease would have to eat gluten free food - you'd just cook it and it'd be problem solved, right?
So claiming that the heat of the steam would 'sterilise any allergen remaining' and 'eliminate the prospect of cross contamination' is downright not true.
In fact, it upsets me to think that someone without any correct knowledge or allergen training was allowed to hit send on those tweets in the first place.
In response to a number of complaints, the tweet (and similar ones sent to other gluten-freers) was swiftly deleted.
The chain also apologised to those it had replied to, sending direct tweets to those people apologising for the misinformation.
But in my opinion it's simply not good enough that one person behind the keyboard of a company with a large following would be allowed to spread this misinformation in the first place.
It has completely decimated any trust in the company I previously had and completely ruined the good news of their gluten free sandwich.
Because in all honesty, right now I feel thoroughly disappointed in them and don't want to spend any of my money in there at all.
And trust me, I used to go there a LOT. Apparently I took a lot of photos of my coffee too.
What does Costa Coffee say about this?
I put all of the above to Costa and the official statement they came back with this official line:
“At Costa Coffee we take the safety and wellbeing of our customers extremely seriously and to help reduce the risk to customers from cross-contamination, we have strict training and procedures in place.
"When a customer informs us about an allergy or dietary requirement our team members are happy to explain the measures we can take to reduce the risk of cross-contamination, so they can make an informed choice.
"This can include the use of additional equipment, such as separate jugs and cleaning cloths. Steam wands are cleaned with the relevant cloths and purged after every drink preparation to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.”A Costa Coffee Spokesperson
The PR team confirmed the tweets were deleted after they received comments asking them to, and they were 'taking the matter very seriously'.
The email from Costa's PR team continued: "As we shared from our Twitter account in response to the enquiries, we know there is always a risk of cross-contamination when preparing drinks in store, which is why our store teams follow strict processes in order to reduce this risk.
"When informed about an allergy, or dietary requirement, our store teams will share the steps we take to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
"Whilst the same steam wands are used when preparing drinks with different milks or plant-based alternatives, they are cleaned and purged after every drink."
So is it safe to drink at Costa Coffee with coeliac disease?
Whether it's safe to drink in coffee shops which serve non-gluten-free milks such as oat milk has divided the coeliac community.
Many people say they've tried it and it's made them unwell. Many others have said they do it all the time and they're fine.
There are no studies on exactly how much of a risk this poses to people with coeliac disease.
For me personally, I would treat it much like anywhere else when eating out with coeliac disease.
Would you eat from a toaster where normal bread had been toasted? No.
So would I drink from a steamer where non-gluten-free milk had been steamed?
Through time and experience I've come to the conclusion that my personal answer to that would also be no.
But I do believe it's important to base your experience on an individual store basis.
For example, at my local Costa I had one member of staff who used to always use the 'redundant' steamer wand to make my drinks when I explained about coeliac disease, and they'd give it a deep clean first.
I was always fine after any drinks they made me and I felt it was safe - but I acknowledge in a busier store that may not be the same.
But I had another experience with a different member of staff in the same store who kind of nonchalantly shrugged me off and tried to argue that there'd be no cross contamination risk.
I felt embarrassed and flustered and foolishly I risked it. I felt ill for two days afterwards and I haven't been back to Costa since.
What about the 'normal' milks?
In the case of the above story, I only ever drink cows milk so this was all with 'normal' milk.
At Costa Coffee, the dairy free milk is steamed in separate jugs and separate cloths are used - but all on the same steamer wand.
If you're wanting to give it a try, I can only offer the following advice when ordering a drink at Costa Coffee:
- Speak to staff and explain your allergen requirements / that you have coeliac disease.
- Ask them how the drinks are prepared and whether they're able to deep clean the steamer arm, or use new jugs/cloths, etc.
- You can always ask to see the in-store allergen matrix as well if you are unsure which milks are 'may contains'.
- If in doubt, sit it out - just steer clear of anything steamed altogether.
I do think it's a case of make your own judgement here, but personally as someone with coeliac disease I no longer feel safe drinking any of Costa's hot drinks.
The most I'd risk is a herbal tea (which let's face it is damn expensive for a cup of water) or an Americano with cold milk - which won't go near the steamer.
But if you like 'fun' coffees and hot chocolates, I'd probably advise you to try to find a coffee shop which is a little less trigger happy on the gluten in its milks.
And, as a point of interest, many of the (non GF) people I've spoken to who have tried the new dairy free milks at Costa Coffee have said they are watery and horrible.
So fingers crossed, maybe they'll change back one day. I won't hold my breath though...
Do you drink at Costa Coffee with coeliac disease? What has your experience been there? I'd love to know what you think in the comments below!