A Closer Look at “Gluten-Free”

by Melissa Diane Smith

It’s important to understand what the label really means.

Today, more foods than ever are labeled “gluten-free.” Would it surprise you to know there is no official definition of “gluten-free” approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? It’s true.

Buying gluten-free food is the only treatment for people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease reaction to gluten, as well as other forms of non-celiac gluten intolerance. The FDA is expected to issue its final guidelines on gluten-free labeling later this year. That’s a welcome development, but it’s not the end. You might think that after the FDA makes its ruling, all of us will be able to easily choose foods that are completely devoid of gluten. Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that. For the sake of your health, it’s important to understand the issues behind the label.

Setting the Bar

Gluten-free labeling standards differ from country to country. In January 2007, the FDA proposed a rule for gluten-free labeling in the U.S. – that foods could be marketed as gluten-free if they contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. After four years of inactivity on the matter, this past autumn the FDA reopened a 60-day comment period to get feedback on the guidelines.

Hundreds of people wrote in. Some, including the Tricia Thompson, R.D., of GlutenFreeWatchdog.org, and Peter Olins, a Ph.D. biochemist who runs the website UltimateGlutenFree.com, urged the FDA to lower the 20 ppm rule to as low as 5 ppm to protect people who say they get sick from low levels of gluten. One of the FDA’s own reports published in May 2011 reported that some people with celiac disease do indeed have adverse effects and symptoms from ingesting considerably lower amounts than 20 ppm of gluten.

Unfortunately, there is limited research and much uncertainty about the threshold of toxicity of gluten in different people. The FDA’s final labeling decision isn’t going to change that, no matter what standard the agency chooses.

On the Lookout

Given the uncertainty, if you think you are especially sensitive to gluten or simply want to eat as gluten free as possible, what should you do? Here are some guidelines:

  • Look for foods that are gluten-free certified by celiac organizations. The Celiac Sprue Association, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness and Quality Assurance International, and the Gluten Intolerance Group (which is behind the Gluten-Free Certification Organization or GFCO) have programs that certify foods that test below 5 or 10 ppm – stricter standards than the 20 ppm that has been proposed and is expected to be enacted by the FDA. For specific details of the programs, see www.csaceliacs.info,  www.qai-inc.com, www.celiaccentral.org, and www.gfco.org.  It’s interesting to note that when New Zealand enacted stricter gluten-free standards than our current proposed guidelines, many celiacs reported improved health.
  • Understand that “gluten-free” doesn’t mean eat with abandon. Though food manufacturers are adhering to the FDA’s proposed guidelines, foods labeled “gluten-free” could contain slightly less than 20 ppm gluten. If sensitive people eat several such foods throughout the day, the cumulative effect could be too much for them and make them sick. To err on the side of caution, limit gluten-free packaged foods and pick and choose the ones you buy carefully.
  • Watch out for gluten-free grains, seeds and flours. These foods are the most at risk for unwanted gluten contamination. A study published in June 2010 by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that nine out of 22 inherently gluten-free products, such as corn and millet, contained mean levels of gluten from 8.5 to 2,925 ppm. Also, 32 percent of naturally gluten-free grains and flours tested contained gluten in amounts greater than 20 ppm. Given those findings, “gluten contamination of inherently gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours is a legitimate concern,” the ADA Journal said. To protect yourself, look for gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours that are processed in a dedicated gluten-free facility and that are batch tested for gluten. Another strategy is to try completely removing these foods from your diet and see if you feel better.
  • Emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables and unprocessed meat and fish in your diet. These naturally no-gluten foods are the best ways to completely avoid unwanted gluten.

Melissa’s Comments:

Let’s cut to the chase: many “gluten-free” food products aren’t really free of gluten! Keep reminding yourself of that.

Avoiding unwanted gluten is another big but greatly overlooked reason to go further against the grain for your health and eat more naturally gluten-free whole foods, especially fresh vegetables!

Copyright © 2012 Melissa Diane Smith

This article was originally printed in the February 2012 issue of Better Nutrition magazine. This article is copyrighted and may not be reprinted elsewhere without written permission from Melissa Diane Smith.

Selected References:

Kratochwill, Lindsey. Waiting for ‘Gluten-Free’ Labeling Rules. Food Safety News. November 1, 2011. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/waiting-for-gluten-free-label-rules/.

Olins, Peter, and Olins, Gillian. Comments We Submitted Regarding Proposed FDA Labeling of Gluten-Free Foods. November 3, 2011.

Thompson T, Lee AR, Grace T. Gluten contamination of grains, seeds, and flours: a pilot study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2010 Jun;110(6):937-940.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Health Hazard Assessment for Gluten Exposure in Individuals with Celiac Disease. May 2011.

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