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  • Tina Turbin

    USA Has Yet to Define “Gluten-Free” for Food Labels

    Tina Turbin
    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Winter 2011 Issue. NOTE: This article is from a back issue of our popular subscription-only paper newsletter. Some content may be outdated.

    Image: CC--Christian Schnettelker
    Caption: Image: CC--Christian Schnettelker

    Celiac.com 01/12/2011 - When Americans shop for caffeine-free tea or soda, the process is a simple one. First, they find their brand of choice, scan the labels for “decaffeinated,” then toss the product into their shopping baskets. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple to find gluten-free versions of foods. Although proposals for gluten-free labeling laws are in the works, currently there is no official definition in this country for “gluten-free,” meaning that gluten-free shoppers can’t rely on a gluten-free label to tell them whether a food product is gluten-free. 

    According to Living Without, neither of the two major food government agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates egg, meat, and poultry products, nor the FDA, which regulates packaged and other foods, have a specific definition for “gluten free.” Currently, the FDA’s standard for gluten-free labeling is that the label be “truthful and not misleading,” so if a food product is designated “free” of an ingredient, it shouldn’t have that ingredient in it. 

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    Whereas certain products can claim to be “free” of substances such as caffeine, a fact which can be confirmed with testing, the analytic technology for testing for zero gluten doesn’t exist yet. Gluten is tested in parts per million (ppm), and currently the smallest detectable amount is 20 ppm. According to Living Without, while celiac experts seem to agree that this is a safe gluten level, other countries define “gluten-free” as containing below 20 ppm of gluten. This means that the current FDA guideline isn’t very useful when it comes to gluten-free labeling. 

    The American Celiac Disease Alliance has published on its website, AmericanCeliac.org, a question-and-answer series from the FDA on the current gluten-free labeling guideline proposals, which were developed in 2006 in accordance with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004. Due to the limitations in the current analytic technology, the current proposals require that a product contain less than 20 ppm of gluten. 

    According to Living Without, “With the number of products making unregulated gluten-free claims on the rise, the marketplace can be potentially dangerous for consumers with gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy.” Before a labeling regulation can be put into effect, however, the FDA needs to make another draft of the proposal available to the public, then gather and consider the commentary it generates. Following this, a notice regarding the safety assessment must be published. 

    “The FDA will likely publish the notice on the safety assessment soon,” Celiac.com reports, but there is no indication as to just when they will issue the final rule. With “gluten-free” labeling on the rise, it seems more crucial than ever to get these regulations passed with a clear definition for “gluten free.”  

    With even the tiniest amount of gluten having the capacity to make celiac patients ill, reading labels when shopping for gluten-free foods is a fundamental skill to be acquired from the very start of a gluten-free diet. Until there is a standard definition for “gluten-free” and a reliable set of FDA guidelines governing voluntary gluten-free labeling, celiacs need to be especially vigilant when hunting for gluten-free foods. This watchfulness begins with the vital understanding that a “gluten-free” label doesn’t guarantee a product is gluten-free. 

    • American Celiac Disease Alliance: Gluten-Free Labeling Proposed Rule
    • Celiac.com: FDA Set to Adopt New Gluten-Free Labeling Standards In-Line with New Codex Alimentarius Standards
    • Diet.com: Contamination of Naturally Gluten-Free Grains 
    • “GF Product CLAIMS: Can You Trust Them?” Living Without: April/May 2010.


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  • About Me

    Tina Turbin is a world-renowned Celiac advocate who researches, writes, and consults about the benefits of the gluten-free, paleo-ish, low carb and keto diets, and is a full time recipe developer and founder of PaleOmazing.com. Tina also founded and manages the popular website, GlutenFreeHelp.info, voted the #2 .info website in the world. Tina believes that celiacs need to be educated to be able to make informed decisions and that Paleo needs to be tailored to the individual’s physiology to obtain desired results. You can reach her at: INFO@PaleOmazing.com.

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