The FDA’s new regulations on how gluten-free food should be labelled comes into force this month, and as a result gluten-free products will actually have to be gluten-free.
But wait, I hear you say, wasn’t that the case already? Unfortunately not. Until now, the United States hasn’t had a legal definition of gluten-free for these purposes and so companies could label products as gluten-free that simply had low levels of gluten.
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. In some people it can cause sometimes very serious health complaints, usually gastrointestinal problems.
Now, and after a year of phasing in compliance that ended on August 2, the Food and Drug Administration requires any food labeled “gluten-free,” or variations like this, to contain no more than 20-parts per million of gluten, which is the lowest level detectable in food and one that would generally be acceptable even for those who suffer extreme gluten-intolerance health problems. The rule also brings the United States in line with international labeling standards that are employed across Europe and other parts of the world.
“This standard ‘gluten-free’ definition eliminates uncertainty about how food producers label their products. People with celiac disease can rest assured that foods labeled ‘gluten-free’ meet a clear standard established and enforced by FDA,” Felicia Billingslea, director of FDA’s division of food labeling and standards, said in a statement.
As mentioned above, the new rule will particularly benefit people who suffer celiac disease sufferers. Celiac disease leads a person to have an adverse reaction to foods containing gluten, causing symptoms like abdominal pain, excess gas, diarrhea, feeling tired all the time, and in some cases can slow a child’s growth (though this is rare). There is no cure for celiac disease, so avoiding products with gluten, like many breads and pastas, is often the only way a sufferer can ensure that they will not have an attack.
There are other gluten-related health problems, including glutan ataxia, which leads to problems controlling muscle function and gait, though celiac disease tends to be the more common of these ailments.
Obviously, the fact that many products that claimed to be gluten-free still contained unacceptable levels of gluten has caused celiac sufferers and others distress. This new change means that they should be able to count on the fact that when the label says gluten-free, that’s precisely what the product will be.
The American Celiac Disease Alliance calls the rule “long-awaited,” while Dr. Alessio Fasano, Director of the Center for Celiac Research at MassGeneral Hospital is quoted as saying, “A decade ago, our research determined that the prevalence of celiac disease in the United States was 1 in 133. Even then it was obvious that patients could not safely manage their diet without better labeling requirements. The FDA has devoted years of work to make sure the standard issued today was safe for celiac patients. Our research supports that standard.”
There is, however, an important detail that we have to stress. Technically, some products that are labeled gluten-free that have levels above the defined levels of acceptability for gluten-free products could still be on U.S. shelves for the next six months to a year as the ban isn’t retroactive. While of course the FDA has insisted that companies phase out above-acceptable levels of gluten in their gluten-free products, those with long shelf-lives, like pasta, may still cause gluten-intolerant people problems, so it is worth being cautious for the time being to ensure that this gluten-free claim is all it seems.
It’s worth mentioning that there are other people who may suffer a gluten sensitivity, causing intestinal discomfort but no lasting health damage. However, the gluten issue only affects at most around seven percent of the American population. Therefore the popularity of gluten-free diets is probably overblown, with recent research suggesting that those people without a recognized health complaint who have adopted these diets aren’t getting any benefit from them other than perhaps cutting out a number of unhealthy processed foods, as there can be an overlap.
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