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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Gluten-Free Food Standards: You've Come a Long Way, Baby!

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Celiac.com 08/17/2008 - People with celiac disease and others who rely upon gluten-free foods to maintain good health got some good news recently, when the Codex Alimentarius Commission the international body responsible for establishing food safety standards, adopted a single, clear standard for foods labeled as gluten-free.

    Such a uniform standard will help people seeking gluten-free foods to make informed decisions about the foods they are buying. The standard will also allow Europe and North America to share a single standard, so that buyers can be confident that any foods labeled as ‘gluten-free’ from those countries will meet the Codex standard.

    Things in the gluten-free world have not always been so progressive. Here’s a quick history of how the Codex standards for gluten-free foods have developed over the last three decades:

    In 1981, the Codex Alimentarius Commission established the earliest standard for gluten-free foods. Under this original standard, foods could be labeled “gluten-free” if they were made from naturally gluten-free grains, such as corn or rice or from gluten grains (wheat, barley, rye) that had been rendered gluten free through processing. At the time, no reliable test existed for assessing the presence of gluten, and so tests gauged the levels of gluten by measuring levels of nitrogen.

    This early standard permitted foods rendered gluten-free to contain no more than 500 milligrams of nitrogen per kilogram of grain. From the standpoint of those with celiac disease, this early standard was well meaning, but unreliable, and thus not particularly helpful for folks with celiac disease. The 1981 standard remained in effect until 1998, when the Codex Alimentarius Commission made revisions to the Codex standard and published the Draft Revised Standard for Gluten-Free Foods.

    The 1998 standard was the first to rely on testing standards that could detect gluten levels, and thus, for the first time, established specific gluten levels for gluten-free foods. The 1998 standard called for foods produced from naturally gluten-free ingredients to contain 20 parts gluten per million, or less, while those rendered gluten-free, such as wheat starch, could contain no more than 200 parts per million gluten.

    The 1998 standard remained in effect until the Commission met again in 2006, this time making an important reduction to the amount of gluten permitted in foods containing ingredients that have been rendered gluten-free through processing. According to the 2006 standard, foods made from naturally gluten-free grains could still contain 20 parts gluten per million or less, while foods made from ingredients rendered gluten-free through processing must contain 100 parts gluten per million or less.

    In November 2007, the Codex Alimentarius Commission met again, and, among other things, changed the name of the standard from the Draft Revised Codex Standard for Gluten-Free Foods was “The Draft Revised Standard for Foods for Special Dietary Use for Persons Intolerant to Gluten.” The name change is significant because, for the first time, the standard reflects the special dietary needs of the gluten-free community, and thus seems to put the needs of the community ahead of special interests.

    In the 2007 meeting, the Commission also established the latest draft standard calling for gluten-free foods to be made from naturally gluten-free ingredients and/or ingredients containing wheat, barley, rye, or crossbred varieties of these grains that have been specially processed to remove gluten, and to contain gluten levels of 20 parts per million or less. The biggest change made to the draft standards at the 2007 meeting is the addition a new category of foods called, foods “specially processed to reduce gluten to a level above 20 up to 100 milligrams per kilogram.”  This category includes foods, such as wheat starch and other starches, made from wheat, barley, rye, and hybrids of these grains processed to reduce gluten to between 20 up to 100 parts gluten per million.

    In July 2008, the Codex Alimentarius Commission met again and officially adopted the 2007 official Codex standard. Although this new development has yet to appear on their website, here is the new standard:

    2.1.1 Gluten-free foods

    Gluten-free foods are dietary foods

    a) consisting of or made only from one or more ingredients which do not contain wheat (i.e., all Triticum species, such as durum wheat, spelt, and kamut), rye, barley, oats1 or their crossbred varieties, and the gluten level does not exceed 20 mg/kg in total, based on the food as sold or distributed to the consumer,and/or

    B)
    consisting of one or more ingredients from wheat (i.e., all Triticum species, such as durum wheat, spelt, and kamut), rye, barley, oats1 or their crossbred varieties, which have been specially processed to remove gluten, and the gluten level does not exceed 20 mg/kg in total, based on the food as sold or distributed to the consumer.

    2.1.2 Foods specially processed to reduce gluten content to a level above 20 up to 100 mg/kg

    These foods consist of one or more ingredients from wheat (i.e., all Triticum species, such as durum wheat,spelt, and kamut), rye, barley, oats1 or their crossbred varieties, which have been specially processed to reduce the gluten content to a level above 20 up to 100 mg/kg in total, based on the food as sold or distributed to the consumer.

    Decisions on the marketing of products described in this section may be determined at the national level.


    The Codex Alimentarius Commission will meet again in Rome from 29 June to 4 July 2009.


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    This might be good for some, but for me just one little speck of gluten, digested, inhaled or applied to the skin (i.e. lotions, shampoos) causes damage and illness for me. I personally think the labeling is overrated, after all, would they call an item sugar free if it still contained some form of sugar?

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    I agree with Susie. Likewise, I am very sensitive to gluten, even the smallest trace amounts. Hopefully something else can be done to ensure us that we won't have a reaction. I just stick to the basics: apples, green beans, rice, and select brands of chicken.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in biology, anatomy, medicine, science, and advanced research, and scientific methods. He previously served as Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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