For Americans with celiac disease, eating gluten free used to be tricky. Shoppers with celiac – an autoimmune disorder characterized by a negative reaction to a protein in wheat – had a hard enough time preventing cross-contamination in their own kitchens, but eating out brought a whole new set of worries. Restaurants made food safety at home look like a cinch. And it was hard to find safe products in the stores. Even those grocers who cared about organic living reserved their prime shelf real estate for the mainstream foods – if you were lucky, you’d find the gluten free stuff on an end cap near the dog food aisle. Celiac sufferers couldn’t help but feel marginalized when the products they needed to stay healthy were treated as novelties.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2013. Within the past month, the Food and Drug Administration has announced a new set of standards that formally define the requirements for a “gluten free” label. It’s the final step in a process that started with a 2004 Congressional request for FDA action to help over 3 million Americans who suffer from celiac disease. It’s also a necessary control on the new market for eating gluten free, which is growing even among those not afflicted with celiac disease. Products without gluten accounted for over $4 billion in sales in 2012, almost three times the value in 2008. This is a trend whose time has come.
The New Rules For Gluten Free Labeling
The FDA’s new labeling system is great news for gluten-intolerant shoppers, because for the first time, a regulatory mechanism will force manufacturers of gluten-free products to play by the rules. The most important thing about the new regulation is that it places limits on gluten contamination. Gluten levels over 20 parts per million will disqualify a product from a gluten free label. Products that are inherently free of gluten (like raw vegetables or pure fruit juices) can earn the label as long as cross-contamination is minimized. The label can even be applied when processing is used to remove gluten from grain-based foods, as in wheat germ oil, as long as gluten levels remain lower than 20 parts per million.
Manufacturers who cater to the organic living crowd have been well aware of the FDA’s proposed labeling rules for some time now. In fact, most had already started to change their labels in an effort to build trust among people – especially celiac patients – who are eating gluten free. Still, companies have until August of 2014 to get their facilities in order. After that deadline, the FDA will bar use of the gluten free label on products that don’t qualify. They’ll have the power to confiscate gluten-contaminated products, and they’ll even be able to force recalls when necessary.
Will the FDA’s Rules Make Eating Gluten Free Easier?
The 20 ppm figure has gained widespread industry acceptance already, but Jane Anderson, a journalist who covers gluten sensitivity for About.com, raises concerns about the new system’s effectiveness. Anderson has been a celiac disease patient since 2003, and she has a specific (and simple) concern. As she points out, lots of people react to levels below 20 ppm. While people with mild gluten sensitivity won’t notice a huge difference in the quality of the products they’ve been buying for the past few years, those who react to even trace levels will still need to find products that are screened more stringently, such as those certified by the Celiac Sprue Association (which sets 5 ppm as an upper limit).
No matter what your upper limit is, it’s refreshing to see that the government has listened to the concerns of people who are concerned about gluten. For people with milder forms of intolerance – or for those who want to limit their intake for dietary or health reasons – the new labeling system will be a big help. This is a real victory for organic living proponents who have worked for decades to give gluten-sensitive shoppers a way to hold manufacturers accountable. Celiac disease patients will still have to take extreme measures to make sure gluten doesn’t interfere with their food safety at home, but that’s not something we can fix with new regulations. Eating gluten free is always a matter of vigilance, regardless of labeling guidelines.
How do you feel about the FDA’s new rules for gluten free labeling? Does this make you feel about as safe as before, or does it help to know that the government can now hold companies liable for contamination? Let us know how these new guidelines might impact your diet in the comments section!