“Gluten-free,” “Free of gluten,” “No gluten,” “Without gluten.”
We’ve all seen these claims on packaged products. Did you know that until last week, when the FDA gluten-free labeling law went into effect, there was no legal standardization for these claims? As of August 5th 2014, any packaged product including dietary supplements placed on store shelves or served in restaurants, that make any of the above claims on their labels, must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. This translates to .57 milligrams of gluten per 1 ounce slice of gluten-free bread and is far below the 50 milligrams most adults with celiac disease have been shown to react to. The law is in congruence with gluten-free labeling laws in Europe and Canada. Gluten-free labeling laws in Australia and New Zealand however, are stricter and require that gluten-free products contain no detectable gluten at all.
Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in wheat, barley and rye and in crossbreeds of these grains such as triticale. Foods that fall under the FDA rule are defined as “gluten-free” if they are naturally free of gluten; or they contain no gluten-containing grains or their derivatives; or they contain gluten-containing grains and/or their derivatives that have been processed to remove gluten and any unavoidable cross-contamination does not meet or exceed the 20 ppm limit. Cross-contamination can result during all phases of manufacturing including the initial stage of growth as a result of crop rotation in shared soil and later due to contact between gluten and gluten-free products during transport, storage and production.
Regarding compliance, the food industry will be regulating itself and if you feel more confident using products approved by third-party certifications, that remains an option. It is noteworthy that third-party certifications require stricter standards than the FDA rule. Namely, the NFCA/GFCP, GFCO, and QAI/NSF International require gluten-free foods to contain less than 10 ppm of gluten and the CSA Seal of Recognition requires less than 5 ppm.
So, what does 20 ppm mean for you? It means that if you have celiac disease and your intestines are in a healed state, you can expect to tolerate normal amounts of industry designated “gluten-free” foods. By this assumption, if you suspect you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity or if you are avoiding gluten for other health reasons, these products are likely safe for you as well. However, gluten sensitivity varies greatly among individuals and if you suspect that even smaller amounts than 20 ppm gluten cause a reaction, your health may benefit by choosing only products that are third-party certified or by avoiding “gluten-free” products altogether. Why else might you want to avoid packaged gluten-free foods? Generally speaking, it’s very likely that they are highly processed and loaded with all kinds of ingredients that may cause inflammation such as sugar, soy, industrial seed oils, excess salt, additives, flavorings, and colorings. Additionally, if you react to gluten, you may be sensitive to gluten cross-reactive foods such as dairy, oats, millet, corn, and rice.
Ultimately, you will have to decide if the industry standard is strict enough for you based on your own level of tolerance. Choosing to eat within a Paleo framework can be very healing for those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance because grains and many cross-reactive foods are not included in the diet. Need guidance? Check out Paleo Plan’s resource materials and easy gluten-free meals. For more information on gluten-free foods, check out this recent post.
Be healthy and happy,
Catassi C. et al A prospective, double-blind placebo-controlled trial to establish a safe gluten threshold for patients with celiac disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. January 2007; 85(1): 160-166.
Vojdani, A. and Tarash, I. Cross-Reaction between gliadin and different food and tissue antigens, Food Nutr Sci. 2013;4(1):20-32.