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What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

February 22, 2012

Wheat-Field
Photo by CoreForce

If you’re in the United States, not much. Americans are still waiting for Gluten-Free labeling rules to be implemented by the FDA. The FDA proposed that, just like in Canada, a food product could only labeled gluten-free if doesn’t exceed 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. But these labeling rules have not yet been adopted, even though it’s been 4 years since the FDA first proposed them. This means that if you buy a product labeled gluten-free in the US, it’s anyone’s best guess as to how much gluten it actually contains.

Why 20 gluten parts per million?

The government maintains that 20 ppm is the lowest reliably detectable amount of gluten. However, it’s widely believed that it’s possible to reliable measure down to 5 ppm. What’s worse is that the FDA actually conducted a Health Hazard Assessment for Gluten Exposure in Individuals with Celiac Disease to determine tolerable daily intake (TDI) levels for individuals with Celiacs. The resulting TDI was shockingly low – less than 1 ppm! Clearly, for those with Celiac Disease, gluten-free must really mean gluten-free.

Warning: This gluten-free product contains gluten

So really, products labeled gluten-free should have a warning on them that they may actually contain traces of gluten. This answers my question regarding what gluten-free really means. I was left wondering after I read on the gluten-free SaviSeed package that the SaviSeeds are processed in the same facility as wheat. I’m in Canada, so they must’ve tested <20 ppm. Interestingly, in Canada, starting Aug. 2012, components of ingredients which were previously exempt from labeling (e.g. components of margarine, seasoning, and flour) will be required to appear on food labels. This will bring to light “hidden” allergens, gluten sources, and sulphites. It beats me why they would’ve been exempt in the first place.

So-called naturally gluten-free ingredients

Gluten-containing grains, what the FDA calls “prohibited grains” as it relates to gluten are: wheat (including spelt and kamut), rye, and barley. Canada’s list also includes oats.

But just because one of those prohibited grains isn’t listed in the ingredients doesn’t mean the product is gluten-free. A study titled “Gluten Contamination of Grains, Seeds, and Flours in the United States,” found that nine out of 22 inherently gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours (such as corn or millet), contained levels of gluten ranging from 8.5 ppm to 2,925 ppm. Gluten contamination can happen in the fields, during transport, and in processing/manufacturing plants.

Current gluten-free labeling

As previously mentioned, gluten-free in Canada means < 20 ppm.

In Europe, the “Law on Gluten-Free” came into effect on January 1, 2012. This law is meant to standardize gluten-free labeling across all EU countries. Gluten-free foods fall into three categories. 1) “Gluten-free”: <20 ppm. 2) “Very Low Gluten” 21-100 ppm, and 3) Foods that have no gluten-containing ingredients, but have not been tested, and thus cannot be labeled “Gluten-free” or “Very Low Gluten”.

As for the USA, In the Fall of 2011, the FDA re-opened a 60-day comment period, ending in October, to get new input on the guidelines. They’re supposed to come to some sort of a decision sometime this year. That timeframe’s about as vague as the gluten-free labels.

Do you trust gluten-free labels?

Shared with Fight Back Fridays and Real Food Wednesdays.

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