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‘Gluten-Free’ Means What It Says

‘Gluten-Free’ Means What It Says

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Gluten-free bread & nuts

This gluten-free banana bread was made with almond flour instead of regular flour. Plain nuts are also a gluten-free option.

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In August 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule that defined what characteristics a food has to have to bear a “gluten-free” claim. The rule also holds foods labeled “without gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “no gluten” to the same standard.

Manufacturers had one year to bring their labels into compliance. Any food product bearing a gluten-free claim on or after August 5, 2014 must meet the rule’s requirements.

This rule was welcomed by advocates for people with celiac disease, who face potentially life-threatening illnesses if they eat gluten, typically found in breads, cakes, cereals, pastas, and many other foods.

There is no cure for celiac disease and the only way to manage the disease is to avoid eating gluten. Without a standardized definition of “gluten-free,” these consumers could never really be sure if their body would tolerate a food with that label.

As one of the criteria for using the claim “gluten-free,” FDA set a limit of less than 20 ppm (parts per million) for the unavoidable presence of gluten in foods that carry this label. That is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools. Also, most people with celiac disease can tolerate foods with very small amounts of gluten. This level is consistent with those set by other countries and international bodies that set food safety standards.

“This standard ‘gluten-free’ definition eliminates uncertainty about how food producers label their products. People with celiac disease can rest assured that foods labeled gluten-free’ meet a clear standard established and enforced by FDA,” says Felicia Billingslea, director of the FDA’s division of food labeling and standards.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a mixture of proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and crossbreeds of these grains.

As many as 3 million people in the United States have celiac disease. It occurs when the body’s natural defense system reacts to gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine. Without a healthy intestinal lining, the body cannot absorb the nutrients it needs. Delayed growth and nutrient deficiencies can result in, and may lead to conditions such as anemia (a lower than normal number of red blood cells) and osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become fragile and more likely to break. Other serious health problems may include diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, and intestinal cancers.

How Does FDA Define Gluten-Free?

In addition to limiting the unavoidable presence of gluten to less than 20 ppm, FDA allows manufacturers to label a food “gluten-free” if the food does not contain any of the following:

  • an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains,
  • an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten, or
  • an ingredient derived from these grains that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten

Foods that are inherently gluten-free, for example bottled spring water, fruits and vegetables, and eggs can also be labeled “gluten-free” provided any gluten that came in contact with the food is less than 20 ppm.

Under the final rule, a food label that bears the claim “gluten-free,” as well as the claims “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” and “no gluten,” but fails to meet the requirements of the rule is considered misbranded and subject to regulatory action by FDA.

If consumers have any doubts about a product’s ingredients and whether or not the product is gluten-free, they should contact the manufacturer or check its website for more information. If consumers want to report a labeling issue related to a gluten-free claim (e.g., the product carries a gluten-free claim but lists wheat flour in the ingredient list), or if they experience a bad reaction to a product labeled “gluten-free,” they can contact their FDA consumer complaint coordinator.

What About in Restaurants?

Some restaurants use the term “gluten-free” in their menus. The gluten-free final rule applies to packaged foods, which may be sold in some retail and food-service establishments such as some carry-out restaurants. However, given the public health significance of gluten-free labeling, restaurants making a gluten-free claim on their menus should be consistent with FDA’s definition.

Billingslea suggests that consumers who are concerned about gluten-free claims in restaurants ask the following questions when ordering foods described as gluten-free.

  • What does the restaurant mean by the term “gluten-free?”
  • What ingredients are used in this item?
  • How is the item prepared?

State and local governments play an important role in oversight of restaurants. FDA will continue to work with partners in state and local governments with respect to gluten-free labeling in restaurants.

This article appears on the FDA’s Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

Updated: May 11, 2018

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