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Published October 27, 2014

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

Searching for 100% gluten-free products shouldn’t be difficult. The term “gluten-free,” introduced by people dealing with Celiac’s Disease and recently popularized as a new fad diet, has popped up on product labels with increasing frequency.

A glut of supposedly “gluten-free” products entered the market, and until recently shoppers had only the word of the company selling those products that they were what they claimed to be. Enter the Food and Drug Administration. Last year, the FDA finalized a definition for gluten-free products that will standardize what companies actually mean when placing “gluten-free” on a label.

It can be tough finding products that truly have no gluten. Even some products that seem unlikely to have it sometimes do anyway, in the form of soy sauce or wheat-based thickeners. Consumers have to check labels constantly.

The common definition has remained slightly hazy, as it varied from company to company. For example, one company may have acknowledged on the package the possibility of cross-contamination by use of shared equipment during production, while other companies may not.

As of August 5th, 2014, companies have been asked to back up their claim by producing documentation from an independent certification program, following the FDA’s guidelines.

To be certified as Gluten-Free, a product must contain:

  1. Less than 20 parts per million (PPM) of gluten proteins, or the lowest amount detectable by testing.
  2. Absolutely no wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of those grains.
  3. No ingredients derived from these grains that have not been processed to remove gluten.
  4. No ingredients processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more PPM of gluten.

Also, anything that inherently contains no gluten, such as water, milk, fruits, and nuts, may be labeled gluten-free. It’s kind of sneaky if a company does that, but it’s technically true.

The new regulation is great news for people with Celiac’s, but there are still concerns left to be resolved. The FDA’s new ruling does not extend to meat products, which falls under the USDA’s jurisdiction, or alcohol, which is regulated by the TTB. Both of those agencies have agreed with the FDA’s decision, but none of the products under their watch will undergo rigorous independent testing unless a company chooses to do so.

RELATED: 10 Best Gluten-free Restaurants in the Triangle.

Also, while the new rule seems straightforward, it may lead to some confusing results on food labels. For instance, if a product contains Malt derived from Barley that has been processed to remove gluten, the label will reflect that. However, because of the FALCPA law, that same label may also have a “contains products with gluten” warning, even though by the FDA’s stringent definition the product is gluten-free. That’s straight-up confusing.

The FDA’s ruling is important for people looking for true gluten-free products. Whether you’re looking to be healthier with your diet or need to avoid it due to medical issues, the new definition and accountability will help you ensure that “Glutten-Free” really means “Gluten-Free.”

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  • Greg Trombley


  • I'm an RDU-based novelist and passionate champion of scientific progression. Nature and science live side-by-side in my heart. I clean dinosaur bones in my spare time, and love reading about local history. All my articles.

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