Truth In Labeling: Celiac Community Cheers FDA Rule For Gluten Free

Aug 6, 2014
Originally published on August 6, 2014 7:29 pm

If you spot a food package label that says gluten free, you can now be pretty well assured that the label means what it says.

As of Aug. 5, all food manufacturers must be in compliance with a new labeling standard set by the Food and Drug Administration.

The rule states that foods may be labeled "gluten free" only if there's less than 20 parts per million of the protein.

The new regulation is aimed at protecting people with celiac disease, a chronic autoimmune disorder that can destroy the lining of the small intestine.

Flare-ups of the disease can be set off by the consumption of even small amounts of gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and a few other grains. The FDA estimates that it affects about 3 million Americans.

"We're really celebrating," Beth Hillson tells The Salt. She founded Gluten Free Pantry, now part of the company Glutino, after being diagnosed with celiac. She also heads the American Celiac Disease Alliance.

As the gluten-free trend has spread, lots of manufacturers have used the label as a marketing tool. The concern within the celiac community has been that food companies had become sloppy, printing "gluten free" on packages of food that weren't truly free of the protein.

As an anti-wheat sentiment has grown in the U.S., fueled by best-selling books like William Davis' Wheat Belly, there are more people interested in knowing exactly what's in their food — even if it's trace amounts of gluten.

And though there's debate about who can benefit from a gluten-free diet, many mainstream doctors acknowledge that some people with wheat intolerance, particularly those prone to gastrointestinal distress, do better when they eliminate or limit it in their diet.

But the idea that wheat, the top grain source of gluten in the American diet, is somehow bad for all of us doesn't hold up.

As we've reported, Daniel Leffler, a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says "there's good evidence that the vast majority of people actually do just fine with wheat."

So, for most of us, focusing on a healthful pattern of eating is likely more important than trying to avoid one food.

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If you spot a gluten-free label on a food package in the grocery store, you can now be pretty sure it means what it says. Beginning this week, food manufacturers must meet strict new labeling requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration. The aim is to protect people with celiac disease who can get sick from eating gluten - that's a protein found in wheat and other grains. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk us more about it.

Hey there, Allison.


CORNISH: So the use of the term gluten-free on labels really hasn't been regulated up until now.

AUBREY: That's right.

CORNISH: Why did the FDA decide that these new standards were necessary?

AUBREY: Well, I think with the boom in the gluten-free trend, there are literally thousands of foods labeled this way. We've all seen them, right?

And what's fueled this trend is the perception that many people have; that gluten-free is some how healthier or can help them lose weight. So for food manufacturers the gluten-free message has become a marketing tool. The problem is that some manufacturers have been sloppy, calling some products gluten-free when they're not. And while this might not be a big deal for people who are casually trying to limit gluten, it is a real problem for people with celiac disease, which is a chronic autoimmune disorder that can destroy the lining of the small intestine. So for the estimated three million people who have this disease, even a little gluten can make them sick.

CORNISH: So what does the new requirement specify and how tough will it be for food manufacturers to comply?

AUBREY: Well, the new requirement says that a food can carry a gluten-free label if it does not contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten. So a miniscule amount of gluten. And no, I don't think it'll be tough for the companies that have been serious about labeling all along to comply. I mean, in the early days when awareness of celiac disease was just taking off, a handful of companies really built their brands on true gluten-free foods. For instance, I spoke to Beth Hillson, who started Gluten Free Pantry after she was diagnosed with celiac and she was celebrating. This is what she's been pushing for. So I think what this rule will do is to force all food manufacturers, including those who have just jumped on the sort of, gluten-free bandwagon, to be much more careful.

CORNISH: Now at this this point, there are people who have been experimenting with a gluten-free diet even though they don't have celiac disease. Do the new labeling requirements mean much for them?

AUBREY: Well, I think that's debatable. There are three categories of people here. One, people diagnosed with celiac disease. We've already discussed that they truly need to avoid gluten. Then, there are people with a gluten sensitivity. This is kind of a fuzzy term, but plenty of mainstream doctors now acknowledge that some people do better - have less inflammation and less GI distress - when they eliminate wheat and other grains with gluten. So it's good that these people can trust the labels too. But then we really get into the gray zone. I mean, there's this growing sort of anti-wheat sentiment that has been fueled by best selling diet books. And the argument put forth is that gluten is just not good for us. But the science doesn't bear this out. I have interviewed gastroenterologists, including Daniel Leffler at Harvard Medical School, who say you know, there's good evidence that the vast majority of people do just fine eating wheat.

So I think the bottom line here is for most people, it's probably more important to focus on a healthy pattern of eating rather than trying to avoid one food.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey talking to us about new gluten-free labeling requirements from the FDA. Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.