On Nutrition’s Cutting Edge: Good News for Gluten-Free Diets

New regulations finalized by the Food and Drug Administration on August 2, 2013 regarding labeling of food products and packaging will make it easier for individuals to follow a gluten-free diet. The regulations specify the amount of gluten allowed in a food product – 20 ppm or essentially none — if the food manufacturer wishes to place “gluten-free” or similar terminology on the food label. It specifies the foods included in the regulation: wheat, Tritacle, barley and rye. This regulation will allow the FDA to enforce adherence to the new rules. The new rules and implications were discussed in a seminar at the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Houston, TX on Oct 22, 2013. I found the seminar to be very informative, and here were a few of points it cleared up for me.

  • The new regulations go into effect August 2014 – a year from the final ruling- giving a window of time for food manufacturers to meet labeling and specification requirements.
  • Oats were not included in the new regulation as they don’t contain either of the proteins – gluten and it’s gliadin component – that are avoided by individuals following a gluten-free diet. However, the seminar presenters made the point that cross-contamination during storage and processing of grains that do contain gluten can easily occur if food millers and manufacturers are not diligent.  Therefore, a person who is eliminating gluten from the diet should be cognizant of the source of oats before consuming them.
  • “Gluten-free” refers to the ingredients in a packaged food product; not to the final preparation, as individuals may or may not add other ingredients during cooking.
  • Food manufacturers can modify these grains — such as wheat flour, wheat starch– to eliminate the gluten. They may label the modified product as “gluten-free” if they test below the FDA allowed level.
  • FDA also regulates food allergens labeling. So don’t confuse wheat allergy – an allergy to proteins in wheat – with gluten insensitivity. For example, a label may contain modified wheat starch and make the claim of “gluten-free.” This is so individuals with wheat allergy can determine if the food product contains any wheat. In this instance “modified wheat starch” must contain an asterisk and a disclaimer that the starch is modified to eliminate gluten.
  • A manufacturer may label a product that normally doesn’t contain gluten, milk for example, as “gluten-free” if he chooses.  However, consumers should not conclude that all milk products are gluten-free, only the food with the label. For example, malted milk contains malt derived from wheat.

The good news, according to the seminar presenters, is that manufacturers of products labeled gluten-free are already at a high level of compliance. And on a consumer level, there are more gluten-free products to select from in grocery stores which makes it easier to follow a gluten-free meal plan. Individuals with Celiac disease following a gluten-free diet must learn to read food labels to eliminate all sources of wheat, barley and rye and derived ingredients such as wheat starch and maltodextrin. There are many resources on the internet, books, licensed nutritionists and organizations to help.

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