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Wheat has long been a staple of the American diet, but over the course of the past decade there has been a notable shift away from excessive consumption of gluten-based products. While many consumers have limited their wheat consumption for purely nutritional reasons, the rising rates of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity have also played a major role. According to the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, at least 3 million Americans are affected by celiac disease, with another 18 million reporting non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Considering that May is Celiac Awareness Month, now is a fitting time to recap what gluten is and why regulatory agency have taken strides to regulate gluten-free products.
Gluten is a protein found in a variety of common food and beverage ingredients, including wheat, barley and rye. While the substance is largely flavorless, it is responsible for the firm shape, texture and strength of grain-based products. Almost all breads, cereals and pastas have some trace of gluten, though modern alternatives have been growing in popularity due to recent dieting trends. Of course, avoiding gluten entirely can be extremely difficult, as most processed foods and beverages contain at least some wheat-based ingredients.
For those suffering from celiac disease, consuming gluten can cause significant damage to the digestive tract’s lining, which limits their body’s ability to absorb important nutrients. If left untreated, this damage can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies and chronic diseases, such as anemia, diabetes, intestinal cancers and more. Another issue is that celiac disease affects each person differently, though most reactions are only triggered after gluten has been directly ingested, per the Mayo Clinic. Some of the most common symptoms include nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and general irritability.
Although there are no existing regulations that require food and beverage manufacturers to include gluten warnings on their labels or packaging, the Food and Drug Administration does have strict guidelines for producers of gluten-free alternatives. In 2013, the FDA released a standardized definition that detailed the specific characteristics a food item must have for it to be labeled “gluten-free,” “without gluten,” “free of gluten” or “no gluten.” These interchangeable phrases are considered voluntary claims, though manufacturers can be held legally responsible if they’re used inaccurately or if they mislead consumers about the gluten content of their products.
The FDA’s standards require food items bearing a gluten-free claim to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This also applies to any substances or ingredients used in a food item’s manufacturing process, such as wheat starch or other derivatives. Additionally, the product must be inherently gluten-free, meaning that even processed food items that have had all traces of gluten removed are not able to include the claim on their label or packaging.
“This standard ‘gluten-free’ definition eliminates uncertainty about how food producers label their products,” said Felicia Billingslea, director of the FDA’s division of food labeling and standards. “People with celiac disease can rest assured that foods labeled ‘gluten-free’ meet a clear standard established and enforced by the FDA.”
While gluten-free labeling regulations only apply to packaged foods, businesses operating in the restaurant industry should also take precautions to adhere to the FDA’s standard definition. Some eateries use terms like “gluten-friendly” and “made without gluten” to avoid any potential liability issues, as these phrases leave room for the potential of cross-contamination. For example, if a cutting board was used for slicing bread before a gluten-free food item was prepared, there may be traces of the protein beyond the FDA’s 20 ppm limit in the final meal. There has not yet bet any formal lawsuits involving such a scenario, but the push for increased food transparency may open the door for legal action down the road.
Gluten-related immune disorders and sensitivities are quickly become a major public health issue, which is why many companies have been cautious about including definitive claims on their packaging. The deadline for bringing labels into compliance is already long passed, but new guidelines for gluten-free food manufacturing could be on the way.
In February 2019, BRC Global Standard released the latest issue of its Gluten-Free Certification Program, which provides a framework for the management and control of gluten-free products during the manufacturing, processing and packing phases. The goal of this voluntary program is to eliminate incidents of cross-contamination that may adversely affect consumers who suffer from celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Should the framework prove effective, it’s possible that government agencies will adopt a similar approach, expanding existing regulations to ensure the general public is protected from unintentional gluten consumption.