Roughly 1% of the American population or about 1 in 133 people has celiac disease, but that isn’t the only gluten-related problem that you need to worry about. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance are also on the rise. Fortunately for people who must follow a gluten free diet, gluten free foods are becoming more readily available. They are still significantly more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts, but many celiac sufferers are willing to pay the price for convenience.
As gluten free food products become more readily available, it leaves many wondering how the foods on grocery store shelves become certified gluten free and what that even means. Keep reading to learn more about the FDA’s gluten free labeling rule and about independent organizations that offer gluten free certifications for food manufacturers.
What Does the FDA Say About Gluten Free Foods?
In August 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a new rule for gluten free food labeling. According to this rule, manufacturers that want to label their food “gluten free” must comply with the FDA’s new definition of the term. In order to comply with this definition, the product in question must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. There is no rule that foods must be labeled gluten free and there is no restriction on which foods can carry the label – even naturally gluten free foods like fresh produce or water.
Here are a few quick things you should know about the FDA’s gluten free food labeling rule:
- This rule applies to all FDA-regulated foods as well as dietary supplements and imported foods subject to FDA regulation.
- The rule doesn’t apply to meat, poultry, and unshelled eggs as well as distilled spirits and wines made with 7% alcohol by volume or more.
- Food products may be labeled gluten free if:
- They do not contain wheat, barley, or rye, OR
- They do not contain an ingredient derived from a gluten-containing grain that hasn’t been processed to remove gluten, OR
- They do not contain an ingredient derived from a gluten-containing grain that hasn’t been processed to remove gluten if it results in 20 ppm of gluten or more.
- Products that are naturally gluten free (like fruits and vegetables) can be labeled gluten free.
- Oats may be labeled gluten free if they contain 20ppm of gluten or less – they do not need to be certified gluten free.
- There is no standard symbol for FDA-regulated foods being labeled gluten free – manufacturers can use the words “gluten free” or a symbol as long as it is truthful.
- The FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to test products labeled gluten free – they must simply ensure that labeling requirements are met.
- The 20ppm requirement was chosen because there are no analytical methods that have been scientifically validated to reliably detect gluten at lower levels currently available.
- The gluten free food labeling requirements only apply to packaged foods – restaurants should adhere to the FDA’s definition of gluten free to make gluten free claims on their menus.
In addition to creating this rule for gluten free food labeling, the FDA is also responsible for enforcing the rule. To do so, the FDA performs food label reviews, analyzes food samples, and follows up on consumer and industry complaints.
What Does “Certified Gluten Free” Mean?
The FDA is responsible for regulating the manufacture, marketing, and distribution of food products to ensure public health and safety. As such, they play a role in determining the definitions of words used on food labels and regulating their use. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are the only organization allowed to do so. In fact, there are a number of other organizations out there that offer certifications for food products.
Here are a few examples:
- Certified Naturally Grown
- The Non-GMO Project
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
- NSF International
- National Organic Program
- Kosher Certification Agency
- USDA Organic
- Crossed Grain Trademark
In addition to these organizations, there are also three programs which offer certification for gluten free foods: The Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), the Celiac Support Association (CSA), and the Allergen Control Group. Each of these groups has its own tests and standards for the levels of trace gluten they will allow. Here is a quick overview:
- Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) – This group requires tested foods to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten, though many foods contain less or even no detectable traces of gluten.
- Celiac Support Association (CSA) – This group requires tested foods to contain less than 5ppm of gluten – they also require that foods be free from oats, even gluten free oats.
- Allergen Control Group – This group requires tested foods to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten and it is endorsed by Beyond Celiac as the Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP).
As you can see, several gluten free certification organizations adhere to the same standards as the FDA’s gluten free food labeling rule while others are stricter. You should keep in mind, however, that manufacturers need to meet other requirements that go beyond the FDA’s gluten free food labeling rule in order to receive a gluten free certification.
What Does Gluten-Removed Mean?
One more thing worth mentioning is the recent rise in gluten-removed food products. Gluten free beer, for example, is becoming more popular and it leaves celiac disease sufferers wondering whether it is safe. Many gluten free beers are made from naturally gluten free ingredients such as buckwheat, sorghum, rice, or fruit but there are also brands that offer gluten-removed beer. These are beers made from gluten-containing grains like wheat, barley, and rye that have been processed to remove gluten.
The truth is that current tests for measuring the gluten content of food have not been scientifically validated for alcoholic beverages. Speaking anecdotally, there are cases in which celiac disease sufferers had no immune reaction when drinking gluten-removed beers but there are also cases where they have. The fact remains that gluten-removed beers that contain less than 20ppm of gluten may still contain traces of gluten and, depending on your sensitivity, you could have a reaction. It is still up to the individual to make educated decisions about consuming gluten free products whether they have been certified or not.
How Does a Manufacturer Become Certified?
In order to carry the Certified Gluten Free label, individual products must be tested and certified every year according to the organization’s requirements. The GFCO, for example, requires individual products to be tested annually in a process that includes an ingredient review, plant inspection, and product testing. The CSA takes things one step further, performing detailed facility inspections and product packaging review to make sure the product is free of gluten-containing ingredients.
What you need to keep in mind about certified gluten free products is that the process to receive certification can be both lengthy and expensive. Not only do most certification programs require annual inspections, but the costs for inspections and audits are billed to the manufacturer in most cases. This means that a manufacturer must be committed to serving the gluten free market in order to justify the expense – manufacturers that simply want to offer a few gluten free products to add to their lineup may not bother with certification.
What Does This Mean for the Consumer?
If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, your main concern is with the safety of the food products you consume. The biggest question is whether a food product that carries the Certified Gluten Free label is 100% safe. Generally speaking, the answer to that question is yes. As you well know by now, food manufacturers go through a great deal of trouble to obtain a certification and due to annual testing requirements, they are likely to maintain that level of quality.
If you follow a gluten free diet by medical necessity, it is your responsibility to keep yourself safe. Learning how to identify gluten free foods is an important step in the process, but you also need to know how food manufacturers obtain gluten free certifications. The more you know, the better you can protect yourself.