Wednesday, October 29, 2014

FDA Cracks Down on "Gluten-Free" Labeling

We are all familiar with the term “Gluten-free”. This term, which originally was used to describe foods that met the needs of those with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, has now become the foundation of one of the top trending diets of the decade... The “Gluten-Free Diet”. From 2011 to 2013 alone, the gluten-free craze has grown nearly 50% and is now a monstrous $10.5 billion industry. Everything from gluten-free flours and cereals to protein bars and frozen meals are taking up more and more shelf space each year. In fact, from 2012 to 2013 a whopping 1, 500 new gluten-free products hit the market. This is great for food manufacturers however, for people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity it has actually become quite a challenge.

A strict gluten-free diet can be a matter of life or death for those with Celiac disease. Even small amounts of gluten can have negative effects on the health of individuals with this condition. So what’s the big deal? Shouldn’t it be easier now for those with Celiac disease because there are so many more products on the market? Not necessarily… and here is why. Prior to 2013, the FDA had no official definition or labeling standards for gluten-free products. Because of this, food manufacturers could market their products as “gluten-free”, even if they did contain gluten. By lacking tight regulations for gluten-free products, it became extremely difficult for those with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity to know which foods were safe for them to consume.

Thankfully, the FDA has recently taken action to address this issue. In a final ruling by the FDA, as of August 5th of 2014, all food products that manufactures wish to label as gluten-free must abide by the FDA’s official definition of gluten-free.

The FDA has defined gluten-free foods as those that do not naturally contain gluten (such as water) or does not contain an ingredient that is:
  • a gluten-containing grain (wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains)
  • an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten
  • an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten 

In addition to this definition, the unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm. This level is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools. Also, most people with celiac disease can tolerate foods with very small amounts of gluten without having adverse effects.

While it is huge step in the right direction for those with Celiac or gluten sensitivities, it is important to know that not ALL products on the market have to follow these regulations. The foods that must follow these rules include all FDA-regulated packaged food that are voluntarily labeled as “gluten-free”, “free of gluten” and “no gluten”. However, the rules do not apply to the following products:
  • Products that do not wish to voluntarily include a claim regarding gluten content
  • Products regulated by the USDA  - meats, poultry, and certain egg products  (FDA regulates the labeling of shell eggs)
  • Products regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) - distilled spirits, wines that contain 7 percent or more alcohol by volume, and malted beverages that are made with both malted barley and hops
  • Non-packaged foods sold in restaurants

Although the FDA gluten-free labeling rules do not apply to non-packaged foods, such as most food from restaurants, the FDA does encourage restaurants that make a gluten-free claim on their menus to be consistent with the FDA’s definition. Given the public health significance of “gluten-free” labeling, restaurants would benefit greatly by adapting the FDA’s gluten-free definition. By serving truly gluten-free menu option, restaurants would gain the trust (and $) of many Americans. 

So what does this new gluten-free labeling rule mean for you? If you have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you can take deep breath and relax; while you may still have to be careful when you eat out or purchase alcoholic beverages, you can trust that the packaged “gluten-free” products you’re purchasing are now guaranteed to be safe for you to eat!

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~Ashley Hamm, MS, RD