Understanding Gluten-Free Labeling
I was diagnosed with celiac disease in the spring of 2005. While it wasn’t quite the dark ages of celiac—I had access to a grocery store with gluten-free flours and a few specialty items, like gluten-free pasta and crackers—I still had to slog through plenty of dense food labels, using a cheat sheet in the beginning. With the help of a dietitian, I eventually committed to memory the countless unsafe ingredients. But just a few months after my diagnosis, things changed dramatically.
Sweeping legislation known as FALCPA, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which required clear labeling of the top eight allergens, including wheat, went into effect. My dietitian said this legislation would be huge for celiacs—we'd no longer have to dissect a label for potential sources of wheat. When present, it would be plainly listed as 'wheat.' According to celiac nutrition expert, Shelley Case, RD, author of Gluten-Free Diet, it’s estimated that about 90 to 95 percent of the gluten in the North American diet comes from wheat.
When I started to see the labeling change—it took the better part of 2006 for most products on store shelves to be replaced with new labeling—it was clear that, compared to celiacs diagnosed years earlier, I had it pretty good. Most of the work—90 to 95 percent of it—was now done for me.
But what about that other 5 to 10 percent?
It turns out that final 5 to 10 percent—mostly rye, barley and their derivatives—is easy to spot. According to Case, rye is used infrequently, mostly just in rye bread and rye crackers. In such cases, the label will indicate rye flour. Barley can be a bit trickier since derivatives of barley, such as barley malt or barley malt extract, are used as crisping agents or flavorings. However, when barley is used, it’s almost always declared as barley malt flavoring, barley malt extract, or barley malt in the ingredient list. A few years ago, Case did find barley malt declared as “flavoring” in a soy beverage. But this drink identifies it as “barley malt flavoring” on its label now.
While I appreciate that my label-reading burden has been slashed post-FALCPA (a good thing since I grocery shop with a toddler these days), I'm looking forward to things getting even better for celiacs. There's reason to hope. The second phase of FALCPA, the part that specifically deals with the term ‘gluten free,’ hasn’t been rolled out yet. Although it's delayed, it will be implemented eventually. When that finally happens, it will be a huge step for celiacs.
Note: FALCPA rules only apply to FDA-regulated foods. USDA regulated foods—meat, poultry, eggs—are not subject to FALCPA, although USDA has indicated it intends to mirror FDA’s allergen labeling standards.