I have always shared my birthday (August 5th) with Neil Armstrong, and now, I share it with a new friend: the Gluten Free Label. That’s right, as of yesterday, the term “gluten-free” (as well as “without gluten”, “gluten free”, and “free of gluten”) is regulated by the FDA. So, what does this mean for you?
Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barely, and other hybrid grains. Gluten is usually safe for most people, but about 1% of the population has a condition called Celiac Disease, which is a gluten allergy. When these people eat gluten, their body has an autoimmune response that ultimately leads to damage to the lining of the intestines, which then leads to nutrition malabsorption (as well as other symptoms like bloating and frequent illness). The only treatment for Celiac disease is a gluten free diet.
However, gluten free has also become popular among people without any allergy to gluten. People go gluten free for a number of reasons, including weight loss and just trying to feel better. As more people went gluten free, the food industry clamored to meet their demands. However, this was still confusing for people who truly needed to avoid gluten, as “gluten free” had not legitimized, regulated definition.
In August 2013, FDA announced it would begin regulating the term “gluten free”. As of August 5th, 2014, any food labeled “gluten free” must – according to FDA – either be inherently gluten free (like nuts) or does not contain any of the following:
1) a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat)
2) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or
3) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food.
In addition, any presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm. The FDA used 20 ppm because there is currently no available technology to allow them to measure levels below that.
This label is voluntary, so for example, Diamond is allowed to label their raw and salted almonds “gluten free”, but they don’t have to.
You can read more on FDA’s website.
What This Means For You
If you have Celiac disease, this means that you may now shop with confidence, knowing that foods labeled “gluten free” or anything similar are in fact, as far as modern technology an detect, free of gluten. This is also helpful for anyone (schools, hospitals, parents, babysitters, dinner party hosts, etc) who may need to feed someone with Celiac disease in the future.
But, for the general population, this doesn’t mean as much. Often times foods like pretzels and bread which would normally have gluten but are processed to have it removed have no added benefit for someone without gluten allergy. These foods are often no healthier than the original and are twice as expensive. Gluten free grain foods are usually made with a mix of potato, tapioca, and rice flour. If you’re trying to eat healthier (or fewer) grains, my advice is to choose 100% whole wheat and cut back on how much you’re eating by adding more vegetables. You can also substitute some grains for vegetables altogether, like spaghetti squash in place of pasta or chopped cauliflower in place of rice.