The gluten-free bandwagon. Have you noticed lately that everything from cereals to yogurt to frozen vegetables now proudly bear the claim of gluten-free? What’s next, gluten-free water or gluten-free fruit? Let’s remember that none of the previously mentioned items ever contained gluten, and the gluten-free labeling is just a thinly veiled attempt to jump on the current gluten-free bandwagon that is rolling through our grocery stores and across our dinner tables, thanks to savvy marketers and Internet gossip.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a legitimate need for gluten-free products. For around 1% of the U.S. population, between one and three million people, a gluten-free diet is crucial to prevent the serious effects of celiac disease – an immune reaction to gluten that damages the small intestine. There are probably another 18 million Americans who have lesser forms of gluten sensitivity that cause intestinal discomfort but no damage. The concern arose when increasing numbers of products were labeled gluten-free without any consistent guidelines for the claim, to take advantage of a growing, but scientifically weak diet trend, and let’s face it, to bolster the corporate bottom line in the process. This left many consumers, especially those with serious health concerns, unsure of a food’s gluten content.
FDA defines gluten-free. Because for millions of Americans, a gluten-free diet is no joke, the FDA has stepped in, as it has done in other cases such as the labeling of organic, or fat-free and has now established guidelines for the labeling of products as gluten-free. On August 5, 2013, the FDA issued a final rule defining the term “gluten-free” for use in the labeling of foods. The compliance date for the final rule was August 5, 2014. Food products bearing a gluten-free claim labeled on or after that date must meet the rule’s requirements.
The FDA’s new regulation for gluten-free food labeling standardizes what “gluten-free” means on the food label. Gluten-free is a voluntary claim that manufacturers may elect to use in the labeling of their foods. However, manufacturers that label their foods gluten-free are accountable for using the claim in a truthful and not a misleading manner, and for complying with all requirements established by the regulation and enforced by FDA.
FDA has set a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million (ppm) for foods that carry the label “gluten-free,” “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” or “without gluten.” This level is the lowest that can be reliably detected in foods using scientifically validated analytical methods. Other countries and international bodies use this same criteria, as most people with celiac disease can tolerate foods with very small amounts of gluten.
Who benefits from new gluten-free labeling guidelines? These actions benefit people with chronic diseases that are seriously affected by consuming gluten. As an example, for people who have celiac disease, consumption of gluten results in the destruction of the lining of the small intestine and the risk of other serious health conditions. The definition also benefits the food industry by establishing a level playing field among manufacturers of products labeled “gluten-free.”
While celiac disease is diagnosed with blood and bowel tests, there is no reliable test to determine non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and there has been considerable debate among experts as to whether gluten is actually to blame for intestinal discomfort in a large number of sufferers who believe they have gluten sensitivity. Concerned physicians, who have followed the explosion of gluten-free diets in the last few years, warn of the danger of following a gluten-free diet if there is no evidence that a person suffers from either celiac disease or has non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For example, a diet free of gluten may include too much fat and not enough fiber.
The take-away. If you have not been diagnosed with celiac disease, talk to your doctor before embarking on a gluten-free diet. For those who think they may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, one way to determine it is to gradually eliminate gluten-containing products from your diet and work with your doctor to monitor the results. For the vast majority of Americans, a healthy, balanced diet includes products containing gluten. Nutrition is not like fashion, where one can put on the latest look today and discard it as passé next week. Good nutrition is serious business not only for how we feel today, but also for keeping our bodies healthy for years to come.