By Dallas Duncan
On Aug. 5, the US Food and Drug Administration released a rule defining what characteristics food must have to be labeled “gluten-free.”
The rule requires a gluten limit of 20 parts per million in foods that are labeled “gluten-free,” “without gluten,” “free of gluten” and “no gluten.” According to the FDA website, this is the lowest level that can be detected consistently in foods using valid scientific tools.
“I’m really glad this food label law is going into effect because it forces companies to take it seriously,” said Emily Wagener, a food science graduate student at UGA.
The FDA estimates about five percent of foods now on the market labeled gluten-free contain 20 parts per million or more gluten. Gluten is a natural protein in wheat, rye, barley and related crossbreeds, the FDA website states.
Wagener cannot eat gluten – she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder celiac disease seven years ago.
“The body launches an autoimmune response against the gut, and it causes damage to the villi in the small intestine,” she said. “Most of the time accidental ingestion is not going to kill you, but over a long time [as nutrient absorption is blocked by damaged villi] your body will start to decline.”
The rule means gluten-free foods cannot contain any ingredients that are types of gluten-containing grains; ingredients derived from these grains; or ingredients derived from these grains with gluten removed that still contain 20 or more parts per million gluten.
Toula Argentis, owner of 2B Whole Bakery in Kennesaw, Ga., specializes in gluten-free products.
She tests in-house for gluten in her products on a monthly basis, and more frequently when new products are introduced.
“We always need to make sure that the test comes out negative,” she said. “You just have to make sure there’s no wheat protein in the ingredients you use. … It’s no big secret, you just have to have very good controls to make sure there’s no cross-contamination.”
Cross-contamination occurs when gluten-free foods are prepared or processed in the same area or with the same equipment that process ingredients containing gluten.
It’s a problem that Lilburn, Ga., resident Kristin Braddy’s dealt with before.
“[My mother] can tell when she’s gotten into gluten,” Braddy said. “She has times when she’s hurting really badly and she’d say she didn’t eat anything that she was aware of that has gluten in it. … It definitely happens. You do get ahold of gluten unknowingly.”
That’s where the new rule comes in, said Sara Yang of Suwanee, Ga., technical service manager at Grandma Hoerner’s Foods in Manhattan, Kan.
Though she doesn’t have health problems that prevent her from eating gluten, she said the FDA rule is “definitely a step in the right direction.”
“Before, there was no standard for what you could call gluten-free. It’s impossible to prove the absence of something, so if you want to claim something is gluten-free you have to have that upper limit,” Yang said.
The rule does allow for foods inherently gluten-free, such as eggs, produce and bottled water to be labeled as such. Companies have until Aug. 5, 2014, to comply with the labeling, or face regulatory action. Georgia Department of Agriculture Food Safety Division staff is still reviewing the rule to see how it will affect the state’s food industry.
Braddy said she doesn’t think the rule will be hard to follow.
“If you’re labeling it as gluten-free, it should be gluten-free,” she said. “Having that reassurance there is a good thing on the celiac’s part as well as the manufacturer’s part. I don’t think it should affect too much if they’re being truthful about their gluten-free [products].”