What Does Gluten Free Mean?
We've all heard about the gluten free diet, but the question, "what does gluten free mean exactly?" still draws a lot of blanks.
[Updated December 29, 2017]
“Gluten free” describes an item that does not contain gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. The gluten-free diet is a way of eating that excludes all gluten-containing foods. This diet is essential for people who have celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
A strict gluten-free diet—one free of all forms of wheat, barley and rye—is necessary to help prevent both the short-term and long-term consequences of celiac disease. Even miniscule amounts of gluten—a bread crumb on a shared knife, for example—can be enough to cause problems for those with celiac disease.
Which foods have gluten in them? Which foods are always gluten-free?
Understanding the requirements of a gluten-free diet helps those diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity better understand ingredient labels and determine if a product is gluten-free.
Generally speaking, grains allowed on the gluten-free diet include the following: amaranth, arrowroot, beans, buckwheat, corn (maize), flax, garfava, millet, Montina, nut flours, potatoes, quinoa, rice, sorghum, soy, tapioca and teff.
Grains not allowed on the gluten-free diet in any form include the following: wheat (einkorn, durum, faro, graham, kamut, semolina, spelt), rye, barley and triticale.
The following foods and products may contain gluten. If you purchase any of these products, make certain they are gluten-free. Read ingredient lists carefully and always look for the gluten-free label.
• Breading and coating mixes
• Brown rice syrup
• Energy bars
• Flour and cereal products
• Herbal supplements
• Imitation bacon
• Imitation seafood
• Processed luncheon meats
• Sauces, gravies
• Self-basting poultry
• Soup bases
• Soy sauce or soy sauce solids
• Stuffings, dressings
• Supplements, vitamins, minerals
• Thickeners (roux)
If you have celiac disease, don’t eat a food if you are unable to verify its ingredients or if the ingredient list is unavailable. Regardless of the amount eaten, damage to the small intestine occurs every time gluten is consumed, whether symptoms are present or not. Labels should be checked every time foods are purchased, even if you’ve purchased a product before. Manufacturers can change ingredients at any time. If you are newly diagnosed, a dietitian who specializes in celiac disease can help you learn about your new diet.
People on a gluten-free diet can eat a delicious, well-balanced menu with a wide variety of foods. Unprocessed meat, fish, rice, fruits and vegetables do not contain gluten. In addition, there are plenty of gluten-free breads, pasta, pies, and cookies that use alternative grains that are gluten-free. The key is to focus on what you can eat, not what you can't.
What Does Gluten-Free Mean Officially?
In August 2014, FDA published a national labeling standard for gluten free. This standard established uniform guidelines for exactly what “gluten free” means on a product label. Generally speaking, gluten free is defined as less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
According to the FDA, “Gluten-free” means that the food either is inherently gluten free or does not contain an ingredient that is: (1) a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat); (2) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or (3) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food. Also, any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm.”
FDA’s gluten-free labeling is voluntary. A manufacturer is required to comply only if it chooses to make a gluten-free claim. The regulation does not apply to USDA-regulated products, such as meat, eggs or poultry. Prescription drugs are not covered but dietary supplements are.
According to the FDA, “The rule excludes those foods whose labeling is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Generally, USDA regulates the labeling of meats, poultry, and certain egg products (FDA regulates the labeling of shell eggs). TTB regulates the labeling of most alcoholic beverages, including all distilled spirits, wines that contain 7 percent or more alcohol by volume, and malted beverages that are made with both malted barley and hops.”
Several non-profit groups, such as the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), offer certification and testing of gluten-free foods. GIG’s certification program, called Gluten Free Certification Organization (GFCO), is 10 ppm or less, which is stricter than FDA’s standard.
Other Food Labeling Standards
FALCPA, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, requires clear labeling of the top eight allergens (milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat). Thus, all food containing wheat must declare it on the label.
CODEX, an international organization for food safety that sets international food standards, stipulates that gluten-free foods may not contain more than 20 ppm of wheat, rye, barley or oats. This standard is similar to the U.S. FDA’s gluten-free labeling regulation. (The 2008 Codex standard allows oats, provided they’re not cross-contaminated with wheat, rye or barley. However, it’s up to individual countries to determine how they handle the use of oats.) The CODEX standard is a voluntary guideline that lacks the punch of governmental enforcement, but it serves as a solid reference for manufacturers in the United States and abroad.
Companies use advisory statements like “may contain wheat,” “processed on shared equipment,” or “manufactured in a facility that also processes wheat.” Ignoring advisory statements could be dangerous for food-sensitive consumers, particularly those with severe, life-threatening food allergies. According to a 2009 report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 5.3 percent of the sampled foods bearing “may contain” advisory statements like these for milk, eggs or peanuts actually did contain one of the allergens. If you have an allergy or sensitivity to an ingredient mentioned in an advisory statement, play it safe and avoid that product.
Still confused about what the gluten free diet is? Click here for the FDA’s update of frequently asked questions.