Christine Patrick, County Extension Agent
Gluten has taken a big fall in the food and nutrient world in recent years. Some of the reasons for gluten aversion include celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and weight control. If you avoid gluten, the following labeling guidelines will help you make science-based choices when choosing gluten-free foods.
What is Gluten? Gluten refers to specific proteins that are naturally found in gluten-containing grains. The FDA defines gluten-free as food that:
- It is naturally gluten-free and does not contain any gluten-containing ingredients (e.g., spelled wheat).
- It has not been derived from a gluten-containing grain that was processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch).
- It does not contain 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten.
- Any gluten that cannot be avoided must have less than 20 ppm when processed.
Is Gluten Bad for You? For some people, especially those with celiac disease, these proteins can cause serious health effects. If you feel like you are at risk for celiac disease or are concerned about gluten sensitivity, you should contact your health care practitioner.
How do you know whether a food contains gluten? If a food product is not labeled gluten-free, you must assume that the product contains gluten. Gluten-free labeling is voluntary for all packaged foods that the FDA regulates. That does not include foods regulated by the USDA, such as meat, poultry, and some egg products, and foods and beverages regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, including alcoholic beverages and products containing more than 7% of alcohol by volume. Gluten-free labels are not required on gluten-free products. Labeling is voluntary; therefore, the manufacturer labels their gluten-free products. How do you know if a food is gluten-free? Manufacturers of food labeled gluten-free are required to meet FDA regulations for labeling. They must use methods to prove that these products contain less than 20 ppm of gluten, including:
- Performing a gluten test at the manufacturing facility of either starting ingredients or the finished product.
- Enlisting a third-party laboratory to conduct gluten testing.
- Requesting certificates of gluten analysis from the suppliers of the ingredients used in the product.
- Participating in a gluten-free certification program.
So, what should I look for on the label of gluten-free products? FDA recommends that gluten-free food be labeled:
Other terms that can be used (as long as the food meets the FDA’s requirements for gluten-free) but are discouraged are:
- No gluten
- Free of gluten
- Without gluten
- Low gluten
- Very low gluten
The FDA is responsible for monitoring all food products labeled gluten-free to ensure they comply with the rule. Methods of monitoring include sampling the product, inspection of the manufacturing facility, review of the food label, following up on any consumer or industry-reported complaints, and gluten testing.
How are naturally gluten-free foods labeled? Naturally, gluten-free foods, such as bottled water or fruits and vegetables can be gluten-free. Non-gluten-containing grains such as rice, buckwheat, and oats, can be labeled as gluten-free as long as any potential cross-contact with gluten-containing products results in the gluten-free grain having less than 20 ppm gluten. The FDA does not have a required gluten-free logo or symbol. The manufacturer may place the gluten-free claim anywhere on a food label as long as it does not interfere with the mandatory information.
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2014. Guidance for industry, gluten-free labeling of foods small entity compliance guide. College Park, MD: Food and Drug Administration. Available from: Website. Accessed April 26, 2017.
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2016. Questions and answers: gluten-free food labeling final rule. Silver Spring, MD: Food and Drug Administration. Available from: Website. Accessed April 26, 2017.
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