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Food Officials Pin Down What "Gluten-Free" Actually Means

Andrea Nguyen
Creative Commons/Flickr

Try walking down a grocery aisle or opening a restaurant menu without stumbling upon foods with claims that they’re “gluten-free.”

Up until now, you basically had to take the manufacturer or chef at their word. There was no widely accepted definition of what makes a food “gluten-free.”

That changed last week when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its new standard for food producers that want to label their goods as being without gluten.

Gluten is a starchy protein compound found in products made from wheat, barley and rye. It’s what gives dough a chewy texture. It can also be an additive in processed foods, like condiments, lunch meat and baked goods, as a thickening agent.

The FDA’s new standard says in order for a food company to market or label a food as gluten-free, it must contain no more than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Federal food officials say the new rule brings more clarity to the fast-growing market for gluten-free foods. Sales of gluten-free foods could hit $5 billion in the next two years. But without a national standard, many of the 3 million Americans with celiac disease, an intestinal autoimmune disease, were left guessing on what qualifies as gluten-free and what doesn’t.

“There were companies who were trying to jump on the bandwagon without really understanding the health ramifications of labeling something gluten-free for something that wasn’t truly safe,” said Cynthia Kupper, director of the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, which advocated for the new standard.

Gluten-free diets have been growing in popularity too, among groups of people with medical conditions and those just testing out the latest wave of niche food products.

The rule has been almost a decade in the making, and mirrors similar labeling requirements for gluten-free products in Europe. The standard for gluten-free labeling was first requested by Congress nine years ago when lawmakers passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).

“Adherence to a gluten-free diet is the key to treating celiac disease, which can be very disruptive to everyday life,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in a statement. “The FDA’s new ‘gluten-free’ definition will help people with this condition make food choices with confidence and allow them to better manage their health.”

The FDA is giving food companies a year to make sure their labels fit the new standard.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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