What Does Gluten Free Mean? A simple explanation of the FDA’s gluten free labeling rule

Since the new FDA regulations of gluten free labeling, I’ve noticed a lot of confusion over what “gluten free” on a label actually means. I hope that this article clears up any misconceptions. I’ve included links to the FDA site at the bottom.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein in certain grains, wheat, rye, spelt and barley, that causes autoimmune reactions in people with celiac disease and distress in people who are gluten intolerant. Some people with celiac disease also have reactions to the protein in oats.

What is a Naturally Gluten Free Food?

Any unprocessed food that is not wheat, rye, barley or spelt is naturally gluten free. Apples, chicken, unseasoned rice and dried pinto beans are examples of naturally gluten free foods. Any processed food that does not contain ingredients from wheat, rye, barley or spelt is naturally gluten free. (Always read the label on processed and packaged foods, sometimes these ingredients have other names like durum. You can find a list of the other names of gluten here: Other Names for Gluten). Examples of naturally gluten free processed foods are Peanut Butter, Yellow Mustard and Real Mayonnaise. (Always read the label to insure the product you are buying is gluten free). You can find a simple list of naturally gluten free food here: A List of Gluten Free Foods You Can Eat

What Does Gluten Free Mean on a Label?

In the United States, as of August 2014, “Gluten Free” on a label means that a product is not made with gluten containing grains and contains less than 20ppm gluten through cross contamination.

Gluten Free Does NOT Mean Oat Free in the USA

If you are visiting from another country that considers oats gluten grains (like Canada), and you are among the celiacs who are affected by oats, note that Gluten Free does not mean Oat Free. Please read the label of gluten free foods to make sure they’re also oat free.

Gluten Free Does NOT Mean “Produced in a Dedicated Gluten Free Facility”

According to the FDA guidelines, a producer does NOT have to let you know if your peanut butter (etc) was produced in a factory with an allergen as long as that allergen is not an ingredient in your food. The “May Contain” warnings that you see on packages is completely voluntary. Click here to see the FDA’S regulation on May Contain Warnings. As long as the product tests below 20ppm gluten, it can be labeled “Gluten Free” even if it wasn’t produced in a dedicated facility.

Producers Are NOT Required To Label a Food Gluten Free, EVEN IF IT IS Gluten Free

Naturally gluten free foods might not be labeled “Gluten Free.” It is completely up to the producer whether they wish to include it on their label. That is why you sometimes see “Gluten Free” on one product when another brand with the same ingredients might not be labeled “Gluten Free.”

Restaurant Meals are NOT covered under this law

As of the writing of this post, restaurants do not have to prove that their “gluten free” meals contain less than 20ppm gluten. It’s a good idea to find out how a restaurant’s food is prepared to avoid cross contamination. For example, if “gluten free” pizza dough is rolled out on the same counter as regular pizza dough, there is a high chance of cross contamination, but if the gluten free pizza is prepared in a separate area of the kitchen with separate gluten free toppings, (like at Mellow Mushroom) the risk of cross contamination is reduced.

Know Which Ingredients Contain Gluten

The safest way to shop is to know which ingredients contain gluten. You can find a list of other names for gluten here: Other Names For Gluten. Read the label EVERY TIME you buy processed food. There is nothing stopping a producer from changing their recipe and including gluten in their product.

Find Out More

The FDA has an incredibly helpful FAQ on the new gluten free labeling law here: Questions and Answers, Gluten Free Food Labeling Final Rule More information can be found here: Gluten and Food Labeling: The FDA’s Regulation of “Gluten Free” Claims.

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