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Confusion: Let the Buyer Beware!
by Melanie Weir
There is a lot of talk about "gluten-free" these days, and many people are attempting to avoid gluten in their diet. For some of us, this is just another way we can improve our health. But for those with Celiac disease, avoiding gluten is critical.
For those with Celiac disease, avoiding gluten is critical. Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder that causes a permanent intolerance to gluten, which is primarily found in foods containing wheat, barley, or rye. For a Celiac, eating gluten can cause a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhea. There is no cure; all people with this disease can do is make sure they do not eat gluten. However, avoiding gluten is not as simple as you might think, especially for those people that are hypersensitive, as gluten is hidden in a lot of things. Here are some facts on this issue that might surprise you.
The product says gluten-free on the label-does this mean that it contains no gluten?
Based on more then a decade of research, I am sad to announce that in the United States, a gluten-free label means absolutely nothing! Any manufacturing company wishing to profit off a naïve label reader can put a gluten-free label on their product regardless of its actual status, because there are no legal guidelines.
How do I know if a gluten-free product really is gluten-free?
This depends on what definition you attribute to the words "gluten-free." It's easy to identify whether a product contains obvious gluten elements such as wheat, kamut, spelt, rye, barley or oats. But it's difficult to identify cross contamination and ingredients that are derivatives of gluten such as: malt, vitamin B, vitamin E, natural flavoring, maltodextrin or dextrin. For an extensive list of gluten related ingredients, go to:
What is the FDA doing about this issue?
As of September 2011, there is no commonly approved definition for what being gluten-free means. The FDA requests that gluten-free labeled products: (a) not include ingredients from gluten or gluten derivatives and (b) maintain a status of less than 20ppm of gluten for all gluten-free labeled products. However, no legislation currently supports this request and it is up to companies to follow or not follow the guidelines. In addition to the lack of legislation, many food manufacturers have no idea how to find the FDA guidelines for gluten, nor do they understand how important it is that they follow them. For more information about the FDA's gluten-free food labeling requirements go to:
Note: On May 4, 2011, in Washington DC, the FDA held a Summit discussing current problems with manufacturers' gluten-free labeling. However, many doctors, specialists, and researchers are currently in debate over what characteristics a product must have to be labeled gluten-free.
Though there are many problems that might arise from the 20ppm decision, two of the greatest problems the FDA faces are:
1) Is 20ppm of gluten safe for a Celiac?
2) Can the average consumer understand that the term "gluten-free" does not mean completely free from gluten, or should the term "low-gluten" be used?
On August 18th, Dr. Peter Olins wrote an article that addresses the many problems of a 20ppm guideline for the term gluten-free. This article can be viewed online at: www.ultimateglutenfree.com/2011/08/fda-20-ppm-regulation-gluten-free-food-celiac-disease/
How can we protect ourselves as consumers, until a gluten-free labeling law has been passed?
Until the gluten-free term is legally defined, the gluten-free label cannot be regulated by enforcement agencies. For the most part, companies are not trying to intentionally mislead consumers, but without a common definition for gluten-free, manufacturers themselves may be misled. There are currently at least four systems in use for regulating the gluten-free status of products. These standards are currently your best option for ensuring that products which claim to be gluten-free are actually gluten-free. Here is information about the four systems with pros and cons.
1) Gluten-free Certification Organization (GFCO)
- Pros: Program tests products for their gluten content; for products testing below 10ppm, products can bear the GFCO seal.
- Cons: Certification can be expensive; not all product batches are tested; only the final product is tested for gluten status. GFCO labels should be double checked at gfco.org to ensure accuracy. Also, products may contain Oats.
2) Celiac Sprue Association's Seal of Approval (CSA)
- Pros: Requires products contain no gluten or oat ingredients, and companies must test raw and final ingredients as non detectable for gluten at 5ppm to bear CSA seal.
- Cons: Certification requires up front costs; product UPCs are not currently available for viewing. Also, sponsors of the CSA can be confused with the seal of approval, because a single logo is used for indicating either the seal of approval (below 5ppm) or CSA sponsorship (monetary support).
3) Gluten-free Specialty (GFS) FIT Program
- Pros: Indicates the likelihood for gluten contamination in the process of manufacturing, facility maintenance, production and packaging. Other common food allergens are also flagged, and small companies are encouraged to test products through an independent lab or by Elisa Assay Test Kit. In addition, the FDA gluten-free standards are used to question vendors.
-Cons: The logo used to represent the GFS FIT standard for gluten analysis is currently being confused with General Mills new gluten-free logo (it's the same color scheme and font style). Also, the system relies on manufacturer reporting.
4) Gluten-Free Choices (Hain Celestial)
- Pros: The end product is tested below 10ppm; machinery is cleaned between gluten and gluten-free productions; approved products are available on the gluten-free choices website (www.glutenfreechoices.com)
- Cons: This system is only used for Hain Celestial Products; products certified are not defined by UPC; only final gluten testing is required to be below 10ppm; some products contain gluten derivatives like barley enzymes.
©2011 by Melanie Weir
Melanie Weir is the owner of Gluten-Free Specialty Market, located at 2612 J Street in Sacramento, CA. She has Celiac disease and has been forced to become an expert on gluten-free labeling in order to preserve her health. Her store offers a wide variety of gluten-free products and resources. Learn more at www.gfspecialty.com
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