An estimated 1 percent of the U.S. population struggles with some form of celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the lining of the small intestine) or gluten intolerance. It doesn’t seem like a tremendous amount, but do the math, and that is well over 3 million people, for whom eating a slice of whole wheat bread can mean a whole lot of discomfort. For them, an entire “gluten-free” industry has arisen to provide a safe source of foods (processed and otherwise) that cater to people with difficulties digesting and metabolizing gluten. The gluten-free market is projected to reach $2.6 billion next year, up from $100 million in 2003, according to The Washington Post, and the vast selection of gluten-free items on the market ranges from gluten-free pasta to wheat bread. So one could look at all this development and think, “progress”, but unfortunately this progress is mired in (what else?) a heaping serving of FDA bureaucracy.
Back in 2004, Congress gave the FDA until 2008 to create a definition for what a gluten-free product actually means. Seven years later, and three years past the deadline consumers are still waiting for the FDA to sign off on what the exact definition of a gluten-free product might be. While other countries, such as Canada, Brazil and Australia, have clearly defined what gluten-free foods should be (containing no more than 0.0007 of an ounce of gluten for every 2.2 pounds of food), the FDA is still working out the fine print on this one.
I guess the question would be, why? Well, you could say the FDA is attempting to be thorough on the matter. “The FDA has spent years calling upon experts to have open-forum debates, town hall meetings — we’ve been having reiteration and reiteration,” said Alessio Fasano, medical director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “They’ve been reiterating and listening to Grandma, Grandpa, people on the street corners. . . . I really don’t understand why it’s lingering up in the air when it really should be a no-brainer.” The FDA says the issue is complicated, requiring analyses of various technical issues, including how well manufacturers and regulators can reliably test for the presence of gluten and, for instance, whether oats are a source of gluten.
In the meantime, gluten-free foods stock the shelves and provide some measure of safety and gluten assurance, but not to the level that some people require. For some whom really struggle with celiac disease, even a trace amount of gluten in a product can mean significant discomfort. That said, even without a uniform standard, many (and most) manufacturers of gluten-free products are electively stringent with their products and routinely test their ingredients, take all the necessary precautions to insure there is no chance for wheat or gluten contamination, and then test the finished product. But without a definitive standard, those who suffer from gluten intolerance and celiac disease are putting their trust (and guts) in the hands of these manufacturers.
Do you suffer from celiac disease or are gluten intolerant? If so, do you feel that a clear-cut FDA definition will bring you more comfort and confidence when purchasing gluten-free products? Do you feel it is enough to trust the companies you already put your trust in? Is 100 percent assurance an illusive proposition?