Does the FDA’s Decision
on ‘Gluten Free’ Make You Feel Safe?

by Melissa Diane Smith

Find out why it shouldn’t.

(Opinion) – After half a dozen years without making a decision on “gluten-free” foods – a topic that was and continues to be of keen interest to growing numbers of people who want to avoid gluten for their best health – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally announced an official definition of “gluten free” in the United States: Foods can be marketed as “gluten free,” “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “without gluten” if they contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten.

Are you celebrating this announcement thinking it is a big victory for consumer safety? If you are, it’s vital that you read this article so you know the undisclosed facts behind “gluten free” that aren’t reported by the mainstream media.

Lack of enforcement

Many people think once a food labeling law goes into place, there is consistent regular checking of foods that have that label to see that they adhere to the guidelines. But if history is any guide, the FDA rarely checks products and more often than not allows food manufacturers to police themselves.

Consider the example of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. It requires manufacturers to disclose on food labels the presence of eight major allergens – wheat, milk, soy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish – to protect people from serious allergic reactions. It doesn’t work as well as it sounds, though. In 2008, I reported on a Chicago Tribune investigation that found:

An alarming number of products sold as allergen-free actually contain harmful amounts of allergens – and American children with food allergies end up suffering unnecessary reactions, including life-threatening reactions that send them to the hospital…. The Tribune investigation found that manufacturers can mislabel their product and some companies do little or no testing. In addition, government agencies rarely police products.

Knowing that, ask yourself some slightly adapted questions I asked in a “Will You Trust ‘Gluten-Free’ Labeling by the FDA?” opinion piece I wrote in 2011:

  • Will the FDA find company violators of the “gluten-free” claim and handle them as (in)efficiently as it does violators of allergen-free claims?
  • Will the FDA take as long and have as much trouble finding violators of the “gluten-free” claim as it does trying to determine which company’s products are responsible for E coli and salmonella outbreaks that routinely occur in our food system?
  • Will the FDA allow food manufacturers that use the “gluten-free” label to police themselves, just like the FDA allows agrichemical corporations that produce genetically modified foods to (not) police themselves?

(Don’t even get me started on the lack of regulation of genetically modified foods… The Center for Food Safety calls the U.S. regulation of these foods “haphazard and negligent” and “a disaster for consumers and the environment”…

It’s important to understand that Michael Taylor, current deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, was a former attorney for Monsanto, the largest producer of genetically modified seeds, and later its vice president. He also was the FDA official in charge of creating the policy that said that genetically modified foods were not substantially different than conventionally grown foods, which led to genetically modified foods not being labeled in this country. Now Michael Taylor is one of the spokespersons for the FDA on what qualifies as “gluten-free” foods. Let me ask you: Is that a person that inspires a lot of confidence in what the FDA decides?)

20 ppm isn’t low enough

The second and far more important issue, is the 20 ppm guideline itself, which is not near low enough to protect some people from harm, according to many gluten-sensitivity experts.

In a previous article entitled “A Closer Look at Gluten-Free,” I explained that when the FDA re-opened a 60-day comment period in 2011 to get new feedback on the 20 ppm guidelines it was proposing at the time, hundreds of people wrote in. Many, 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 react to and get sick from very 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. It’s also important to know that when New Zealand enacted much lower gluten-free standards than our now ruled-upon guidelines, many celiacs reported improved health.

In a 2011 article entitled “When You Thought the FDA Was Getting Its Act Together,” Rodney Fife, Ogden Gluten-Free Foods Examiner, said what many people who advocated lower levels of gluten for the gluten-free standard were thinking:

Why would the FDA allow companies to label a product gluten free with 20 ppm? They have to know this move will cause individuals to become sick.

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I have a couple of questions. First of all is there pressure from food manufacturers to have a higher limit? We know the food industry spends millions of dollars to lobby Washington. Is it not the job of the FDA to ensure food safety? Why then would they endanger the health of thousands of Americans?

Pushing for gluten-zero

My colleague Rodney Ford, M.D., known as “Dr. Gluten” because of his decades of experience treating children with gluten-related illnesses, believes the 20 ppm guideline is much too high. In his book Gluten: Zero Global, Dr. Ford presents a case that gluten is bad for all of us over a lifetime, even those who are not gluten sensitive. He urges consumers to purchase foods that are gluten-zero for noticeable long-term health benefits and disease prevention.

Dr. Ford estimates that a third of all chronic ill health is caused by gluten and predicts that a third of the health-informed community will have adopted a gluten-zero lifestyle within the next ten years.  Part of this food revolution will come about when the term “gluten-free” is changed to “gluten-zero.” Precise words are powerful: a change of a word can create a change in behavior, he says. He does not think we should settle for a 20 ppm standard for “gluten-free” because that amount of gluten in all those foods will add up and keep people sick.

How to shop very low gluten

Most people want to believe that government agencies are protecting us. But the evidence keeps pointing to them favoring the interests of the food industry more then the health and safety of consumers. In such a pro-industry environment, the buyer has to continually beware and do what is necessary to protect his own health.

So, how do you choose foods as close to gluten zero as possible? Try these tips:

  • Eat unprocessed meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, and fruit. These foods are naturally gluten free and, unlike many gluten-free grains, they are not processed or stored in the same facilities as the gluten grains wheat, rye, and barley. That makes this the best strategy for staying away from gluten. (Try a Paleolithic diet for many health benefits besides just avoiding gluten!)
  • Know that gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours are the foods that are most at risk for unwanted gluten contamination. (See this Gluten contamination of grains, seeds, and flour study.) I cannot emphasize enough that the safest way to avoid gluten is to eat a grain-free, flour-free diet. Avoid grains, seeds, and flours, even those considered naturally gluten free, as much as possible.
  •  If you aren’t willing to follow a grain-free diet just yet, look for foods that are gluten-free certified by celiac organizations such as the Celiac Sprue Association, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and the Gluten Intolerance Group (which runs the Gluten-Free Certification Organization or GFCO program). These programs certify foods that test below 5 or 10 ppm gluten – much better than the 20 ppm FDA guideline.
  • Avoid purchasing food from bulk bins or deli counters. Both areas of a store are places that are ripe for cross-contamination from gluten-containing items. Opt instead for sealed pre-packaged items of naturally gluten-free foods, but be sure to choose the packaged items you buy carefully.
  • Consider buying The Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide by Triumph Dining to help you make more informed choices. It gives helpful information for consumers on over 44,000 products from hundreds of different brands. Use the guide to learn:
  • Names of companies that have tested their ingredients, finished products, machinery or equipment for gluten, such as Amy’s Kitchen beans, chili, soups, and pizza crust; Dowd & Rogers almond and chestnut flours; Go Raw food bars and super chips; Kaia Foods kale chips and food bars; and Let’s Do…Organic organic coconut, coconut flour, cornstarch, and tapioca starch.
  • Names of food items that are produced in a dedicated gluten-free facility or environment, or do not have cross-contamination as an issue, such as Ancient Harvest quinoa and quinoa flour; Lundberg Family Farms rice, risotto, and brown rice flour; Lydia’s Organic cereal and bread; and Crown Prince canned seafood.
  • Companies that have good manufacturing processes or counter measures in place to help overcome possible gluten contamination, such as Coconut Secret coconut flour, coconut sugar, and bars; Pacific Natural Foods broths and soups; and Simply Organic Spices.

You can also discover names of companies that employ two or more of these gluten-avoidance techniques, such as Enjoy Life Foods (Crunchy Flax Cereal, for example).

  • When in doubt about a product, call or email the company and ask questions.  That’s the best way to get up-to-date information on a product. By doing that, you also let food companies know what you as a consumer are looking for (in other words, super low gluten) when you choose gluten free. It’s up to us to push manufacturers for stricter standards.

Some final words

Don’t get caught up in the hype about the FDA now giving “its stamp of approval” on foods that are labeled “gluten free” and believe the decision is a wonderful deal for gluten-sensitive people. That’s smoke and mirrors to keep us from seeing the truth: Even though most manufacturers are currently adhering to the 20 ppm guideline, that guideline favors the food manufacturers. What it means is there’s a little bit of gluten, enough to keep many people sick, in many “gluten-free” products.

Please also consider this: Has the FDA finally come out with a ruling on “gluten free” to get people focused on that and away from a growing call by many angry Americans to label genetically modified foods? Some non-GMO advocates certainly believe that.

It’s time to get out of the mindset that the FDA is protecting us, not be so naïve, go against the tide, and stop eating many industry-driven processed foods. When we do purchase some packaged foods, it’s more important than ever to think before you buy and be a super gluten-savvy consumer.

Copyright © 2013 Melissa Diane Smith

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