Gluten-Free Now Formally Defined

August 06, 2013

The FDA recently set standards for gluten-free labeling. Find out the details and if 20ppm is really enough.

On August 2nd, the federal government set a standard for gluten-free claims on food labels, a step that will benefit the three million Americans with celiac disease and increase trust and uniformity. According to SPINS, gluten-free sales totaled $12.4 billion in the 52 weeks leading up to August 4, 2012 (sales in all channels including natural, specialty gourmet and conventional food and drug). This reflects an 18% increase over the previous 52 week period.

Gluten-free foods are those that do not contain the protein gluten (and other reactive proteins) which exist in all forms of wheat including: faro, durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, and einkorn, and all related grains including barley and rye. Gluten can be found of course in baked goods, pastas, as well as in unidentified starches, binders, fillers, and malts. It can even be found (as an additive or ingredient) in cold cuts, soups, soy sauce, teas, and jelly beans. When eaten by people with celiac disease, gluten can trigger the production of antibodies that damage the lining of the small intestine – leading to cancer among other things.

To protect people with celiac, Congress passed a law in 2004 calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set standards for how much trace gluten could be in foods whose labels said they were gluten-free - a much needed standard since diagnosis and those following a gluten-free diet for other health reasons has skyrocketed in the past few years.

Friday’s publication is a sigh of relief for those who are strictly gluten-free. The FDA set a limit on gluten at 20 parts per million in products labeled gluten-free. Both the European Union and Canada use the same level for their gluten-free labeling.

Is 20 parts per million safe? According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, the director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the new rule is “a big deal” because it gives people with celiac disease confidence that the food they purchase will not make them sick. Dr. Fasano told the New York Times, “A gluten-free diet for people with celiac disease is like insulin for diabetics.”

Of course there are still some who do react to gluten even at very low levels. The FDA commented that, “Lowering the level below 20 ppm will make it far more difficult for manufacturers to make food products that could be labeled as 'gluten-free,' thereby reducing food choices for individuals with celiac disease...” From the Lempert Report’s experience, those who are sensitive to even small amounts of gluten stay away from various products even if they are labeled gluten-free.

Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine says that the agency has tools to keep companies in compliance. It can seize products whose gluten level is above the limit, or require companies to recall products; although Taylor said he doubted much of that would be necessary. Industry favors the rule, he said, as it sets a level playing field and gives consumers peace of mind. “We don’t think compliance will be a problem… Industry wants this rule. They have huge incentive to comply with it. They want people to be confident.”

For more, click here.