Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lick It Up: The Truth About Envelopes, Stamps, and Gluten


Whether during the holiday season two months ago, or for Valentine's Day two weeks ago, there's a good chance that in recent weeks or months you sent greeting cards and/or letters. And if you did, maybe you sat at your desk or kitchen table, ready to seal them up for mailing and thought, "Should I lick this stamp or envelope flap?"

I have to admit—I have an irrational fear of envelope flaps. Seriously. You know the way people will start with their tongue on one end of the flap and then glide across the length of the flap to moisten the adhesive? I can't help worrying that in doing so I'm going to give my tongue a wicked paper cut. So instead I do a series of small licks, perpendicular to the flap, along the length of the envelope. Crazy, but true. At any rate...

What's the big deal about licking the glue on an envelope flap? (Other than my wacko worry…) Because the possible presence of gluten in the adhesive that seals envelopes and stamps is one of the most persistent myths in the gluten-free community. Blogs abound with warnings about potential hidden sources of gluten, and envelopes and stamps are frequently on those lists. (We may have been guilty of this ourselves in the early days of this blog, though I haven't gone back and searched our posts to confirm…)

Even beyond blogs, the "gluten in adhesives" myth has been present in a variety of reputable sources. Back in 2006, an article in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice—with the Mayo Clinic's Joseph Murray as coauthor—made the warning. More recently, an article in The Nurse Practitioner: The American Journal of Primary Healthcare did the same thing. A quick Internet search will find oodles and oodles of other examples. But is it true?

In a word: no.

Gluten-Free Living magazine debunked this issue a while back, as did Gluten Free Dietitian in an excellent post, but it continues to come up. So I figured I do my usual journalistic thing and do some digging into primary source material to get down to the nuts and bolts of facts.

The adhesive used on the flap of envelopes falls under the category of starch- and dextrin-based adhesives. Such adhesives can be made from a variety of starchy plant materials, including corn, potato, tapioca, sago, and—eek!—wheat. In practice, however, corn and potato are what's actually used, as noted in the Envelope Manufacturers Association Foundation report, "Envelope Adhesives Technical Paper." Its sister organization, the EMA, more specifically notes that envelope adhesive these days is made from corn, and is gluten-free.

As for stamps, the U.S. Postal Service says they're gluten-free, too. Though that's something of a moot point, since nearly 100% of stamp sales today are pressure adhesive stamps that you peel off and stick right on the envelope without moistening via lick.

Does this mean that all envelope adhesives will be gluten-free for all time? Of course not. Some manufacturer could one day switch to making its starch-based adhesives from wheat. But the risk seems incredibly small.

When it comes to envelope flaps and stamps, the conclusion is go ahead and lick it up. No need to go postal over this issue. They're gluten-free, so stop worrying about the gluten status of your snail mail and spend some more time in the kitchen making fabulous gluten-free food.

–Pete

P.S. If you're still concerned, you can always go with the peel-and-stick options, or use another moistener (other than your tongue) for your envelope flap seals.

Image courtesy iprole / SXC.hu

9 comments:

Alison | a girl defloured said...

HA! This would be great news if I loved licking envelopes...which I don't. But now at least I won't feel like I need to wash my hands after I seal them (with a damp cloth). ;)

KJM said...

No. I have been 'glutened' by envelopes before. It's not myth. It is something that those with Celiac must be aware of. I buy the 'peel-and-stick' envelopes.

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Pete, there are two things here. First, despite the "debunking" of this myth by all the sources, I have to agree with KJM and say that I am one who has been "glutened" (more than once) by licking an envelope before. I've also had support group members report the same. We don't want to be glutened this way. We're not just trying to be doom and glooom and spread evil rumors and perpetuate myths, but it has been our reality. I mostly use water on my finger or a wet cloth to moisten the flaps now and then wash my hands. Second, there is handcrafted stationery (homemade paper and envelopes) where the artisans still use whatever they like and it most definitely can be a type of wheat starch and other gluten involved.

Shirley

peterbronski said...

Hi Shirley,

Thanks for adding your perspective. Handcrafted stationery certainly introduces a variable to the equation. More generally, as with any "food" with an ingredients list, a degree of caution may be warranted with envelopes because formulations can always change, though from the various sources I've read, indications are that use of corn, rather than wheat, is pervasive among envelope adhesive manufacturers.

I don't doubt that some highly sensitive individuals may react to licking an envelope, as you've noted. But I wonder if they are having a gluten-like reaction, rather than an actual gluten response, to another component of the adhesive. For example, could these highly sensitive individuals be exhibiting cross-reactivity to corn? What do you think?

Cheers,
Pete

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Pete, of course, I've gone through that thought process, but although I am somewhat sensitive to corn and have issues with other grains, soy, etc., I don't react to any of them, the same way that I do gluten. I will be interested to see if any others comment and report similar issues.

Shirley

peterbronski said...

Hi Shirley,

If you'll indulge one more question from me (because I'm genuinely interested in better understanding the reactions some people may be having) - Do you find that just one lick is sufficient to cause a reaction? One envelope? A stack of envelopes? Does the quantity of the "dose" matter, from what you and some of your support group members have experienced? Thank you!

Cheers,
Pete

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Well, one lick doesn't usually do the job so one doesn't usually stop with one lick. I've experienced my symptoms after licking the flap of one envelope. There have been times since that I have not had water available to employ my other method and I've lived dangerously and licked and experienced no reaction, so I do believe there are glues that are safe. I just don't believe they are all gluten free.

Shirley

Amanda on Maui said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alaa M said...

Not only gluten induce immune reaction, any substance has the same characteristic induce reaction. Its like the glue in cigarettes paper, each time I smell cigarette as second hand smoker, I get glutened. There must be some explanation to it. Maybe its not Gluten but there is something else which induce immune reaction against the guts.