Trying to figure out whether a food is gluten free is one of the more frustrating challenges of starting a gluten free diet. While labeling rules have certainly improved, reading a label can still be confusing. Today we go straight to the source – a gluten free food manufacturer – to find out more about gluten free food labeling.
Today’s guest post is from Chris Bekermeier, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, for PacMoore in Hammond, IN. PacMoore is a contract manufacturer focused on processing dry ingredients for the food & pharmaceutical industries. Capabilities include blending, spray drying, re-packaging, sifting, & consumer packaging. Two of PacMoore’s facilities are certified gluten free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization.
Answers About Gluten Free Food Labeling
Truth in food labeling is not a new issue—for certain segments of the population. How products are labeled has been a major concern for years. People with allergies or sensitivities to certain foods need a practical way to compare products and know without a doubt that they are safe to eat and won’t exacerbate an underlying health problem. That’s why the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) exists: to help these consumers identify problem foods and avoid them; and for individuals with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, this means gluten-free labeling.
So if the purpose of gluten-free labeling is to help consumers find products they can be sure are free of gluten, why is labeling still so confusing? When a customer reaches for a jar of peanut butter, why is one jar labeled “gluten-free,” another labeled “naturally gluten-free,” another marked “may contain wheat,” and another with no gluten consideration at all? What’s the problem? How can gluten-intolerant consumers find safe food products to buy?
To help answer those questions, here’s a look at some of the biggest questions consumers have about gluten-free labeling, along with answers:
Does a Gluten-Free Label Guarantee a Product Has Absolutely No Gluten?
Not exactly. What a gluten-free label guarantees is that only a very tiny, infinitesimal amount of gluten is in the product. In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established proposed guidelines for gluten-free labeling that include a maximum allowable amount of 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten in a given product. The 20ppm amount was determined to be the lowest reliably detectable amount using current methods. Any products containing more than that amount, or containing a list of specific grains such as barley, rye, kamut, spelt, common wheat, triticale, or byproducts of these grains, such as semolina, vital gluten, malt vinegar, or farina, cannot be labeled gluten-free.
Is a Product Required to Be Labeled Gluten-Free If It Meets the Federal Standards?
No. Gluten-free labeling is voluntary. Any manufacturer that wants to include this notation on its qualifying product may do so, but it does not have to. A manufacturer is not required to provide this information.
Are Products Labeled Gluten-Free Safer Than Similar Products Not Labeled Gluten-Free?
Not necessarily. A bag of chocolate chips that are labeled “gluten-free” may be next to another bag of chocolate chips without a label, although the second bag is actually just as free of gluten as the first bag. Since a manufacturer is not required to label a product as gluten-free, even if it meets the requirements to do so, there is no assurance that a product designated as gluten-free is any better or safer than another brand without the label.
At its August 2005 public meeting, the FDA invited distinguished panelists and speakers to discuss this issue as part of the larger scope of the meeting. Anne Lee, M.S., R.D., of the Celiac Center at Columbia University, brought up the subject of foods that are already inherently gluten-free, such as tomatoes. She reported that a consumer had told her that if she sees two cans of tomatoes and one is labeled gluten-free, she knows that one is safe for her. Lee explained that the consumer had no foundation for thinking that one can was safer than the other, but that there is a perception in the consumer’s mind that the label indicates there is. Lee proposed labeling foods that are inherently free of gluten with the designation “naturally gluten-free.”
What About Cross Contamination with Gluten?
Food processing is a major source of gluten contamination. Even legitimately gluten-free foods, if processed alongside gluten products, can become cross-contaminated and no longer safe. Consumers know this to be true in their kitchens, where gluten-free bread shouldn’t be toasted in the same place as wheat bread, and gluten-free ingredients shouldn’t be chopped on the same cutting board as gluten-containing ones. This is also true in food manufacturing, which is why companies often label products with a disclaimer along the lines of “processed in the same facility as wheat or other gluten ingredients.” ** For consumers who cannot tolerate gluten, that disclaimer is a sign that the food is not safe.
The Bottom Line on Reading Gluten Free Food Labels
Buyer, beware. While labeling guidelines and regulations are designed to help increase awareness of the ingredients in a certain product, the buyer must still assume responsibility for understanding the regulations, if any, for a given notation on a label. Some notations such as “gluten-free” have established guidelines, while others may not (and thus, the labels would mean very little).
For consumers avoiding gluten, finding safe products is not a simple matter, but, with practice, it can become a habit and more like second nature. Protecting yourself means carefully reading labels and doing your homework on what confusing terms mean. Here are few beginning steps to keep in mind to stay gluten-free:
1. Check for the “Gluten-Free” Label: At the very least, a product labeled as gluten-free is a product that meets federal guidelines for a lack of gluten. It might not be the only brand free of gluten, but it is at least one brand free of gluten. So when in doubt, grabbing the “gluten-free” can of tomatoes makes sense.
2. Don’t Rule Out Products without Labels: When you want to buy frozen green beans and none of the bags showcase a “gluten-free” label, don’t lose heart. Take a look at the ingredients on the package, which should be just green beans, nothing else.
3. Check for Disclaimers: See if there’s a “may contain wheat” or “processed in a facility with wheat” disclaimer. If so, you can consider the product unsafe.
4. Be Aware of Ingredients with Hidden Gluten: In those situations where a manufacturer has chosen not to indicate whether gluten is in a product, you need to know which ingredients contain it. Look for malt, graham, spelt, and kamut, all of which contain gluten. Be wary of ingredients that may contain other ingredients inside them, such as tomato paste, rice syrup, yeast, mustard, etc. When in doubt, stick to the purest, cleanest, most unprocessed form of food that you can.
Mary Frances here again: I was so glad Chris offered to right this article. Even though I’ve studied the gluten free regulations in-depth, I was glad to be able to confirm that I wasn’t crazy to be confused by something as simple as buying canned tomatoes.
Just to be clear, FDA regulations do not require manufacturers to put disclaimers about their manufacturing processes on the label. The absence of such a disclaimer does not mean that the food has not been exposed to wheat through cross-contact.
If you want to learn more gluten free labeling and finding safe processed foods, please read Chapter 3 of my ebook, The Gluten Free Survival Guide. You can read about gluten free labeling on lots of different websites, but in the Gluten Free Survival Guide I’ll walk you through figuring out a strategy for reading labels that works for you. The Gluten Free Survival Guide also includes a list of Safe and Unsafe Food Ingredients to help you find the hidden sources of gluten that Chris mentioned in his post.