Can You Count on A Gluten-Free Label?
Understanding what a gluten-free label means
Go to any store these days, and you will likely come across not just the occasional gluten-free product but entire aisles of gluten-free food. However, anyone who has researched gluten-free eating knows that the cardinal rule of staying safe is always to read your labels. But what about when the label says the food is gluten-free? Or if it has the even more official-sounding “Certified Gluten-Free” on the packaging?
It turns out that these labels have somewhat similar meanings but are awarded by completely different groups with equally different standards and procedures. A closer look at the groups and those standards can help demystify some of this.
One concept repeatedly in discussions of gluten-free labeling is “parts per million,” or PPM. Understanding PPM and why it matters will help the rest of this make sense. PPM is a question of ratios; the simplest way to look at it is as a percentage. For example, 10% is always 10%, but 10% of 100 is a smaller amount than 10% of 1,000,000. In the same way, 10 PPM is always 10 PPM (0.001%), but 10 PPM in 20 oz of food will be less than 10 PPM in 40 oz of food.
Gluten is measured in parts per million for gluten-free labeling. In the previous example, a person who eats 20 oz of food containing 10 PPM of gluten will ingest less gluten than someone who eats 40 oz of food containing 10 PPM. The question at this point is, how much gluten is enough to make you sick?
There is no easy answer here as it varies from person to person, though some general guidelines. A study done by the Maryland Center for Celiac Research indicated that those consuming between 5-10 mg of gluten per day or less showed no damaging changes to their intestinal tracts over 90 days, while those who ate 50 mg per day (about 1/70th of a slice of typical bread) showed signs of damage to the villi. Studies also show that those eating a typical gluten-free diet, depending on foods that contain between 10-20 PPM, end up ingesting between 5-10 mg of gluten per day.
The majority of people will feel all right on this amount of gluten, though some may be more sensitive and some less. Some individuals can even consume typical gluten and not have any immediate reaction—though their villi and ongoing nutritional deficiencies tell another tale.
The long and short of it? Even if you don’t feel the symptoms, keep your gluten consumption as low as possible. The lower, the better.
The Food & Drug Administration is the heavy hitter for tracking the quality and contents of the things we consume. Early in the 2010s, the bureau decided on standards for gluten-free labeling. While the standards have been expanded and adapted in the intervening years, the main points remain:
- Gluten-free labels are voluntary.
- Gluten-free labels can be used on any packaged food that contains less than 20 PPM of gluten.
What this means is that you may see the FDA gluten-free label on naturally gluten-free foods (such as bagged carrots) as well as any items that the manufacturer states contain less than 20 PPM of gluten. To enforce these standards, the FDA employs periodic sampling, occasional facility inspections, label reviews, and following up on consumer complaints. They also hold the manufacturer responsible for their gluten-free claims.
The FDA set its gluten ceiling at 20 PPM because the research showed that generally, people with celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity tolerate 20 PPM well. However, that isn’t a guarantee. If eating something with 20 PPM of gluten makes you feel sick, don’t eat it again! As mentioned above, everyone’s sensitivity is different.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the FDA’s standards only apply to packaged foods, not to restaurant food, non-packaged food, or for anything that falls under the purview of the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives). While the FDA is working with the ATF to synchronize their gluten-free standards and suggests that restaurants claiming foods are gluten-free meet the 20 PPM standard, there are no actual restrictions in place for these items. Once again, asking questions is going to be your saving grace to avoid unexpected gluten.
Certified gluten-free labels, on the other hand, can come from several places; this article focuses on one of the biggest. The one whose label is pictured here: the Gluten-Free Certification Organization.
The GFCO sets a lower ceiling for certification than the FDA at 10 PPM and takes a more proactive approach by requiring manufacturers to be recertified each year. The certification process includes testing foods for gluten, an inspection of facilities, and surveillance of manufacturing processes. The GFCO also performs random product testing on all of the manufacturers granted Certified Gluten-Free labels.
GFCO is not the only group around that awards “Certified Gluten-Free” labels, so any time you see a new label make sure to look it up and find out how many PPM it indicates.
Can I Trust the Labels?
The short answer is yes, to a degree. Despite the different approaches and different gluten ceilings, research shows that similar numbers of manufacturers meet the labels’ requirements on their products—and those numbers are pretty high.
If you become sick in response to a food carrying a “Gluten-Free” or “Certified Gluten-Free” label, be sure to reach out to whatever organization granted it. It may be that you have a lower tolerance for gluten, or it might be that the particular manufacturer has slipped up in their processes. The label-granting body will be grateful for your information, regardless.
On a final note, beware of packaging proclaiming the food inside was “not made with gluten-containing ingredients.” This particular label isn’t attached to any standards. While every ingredient inside may well be naturally gluten-free, it’s no guarantee that the manufacturer took any steps to prevent cross-contamination. Misleading? Yes, but not technically illegal.
Gluten-Free and Certified Gluten-Free labels are handy shortcuts when it comes to keeping that pesky protein away from your guts. As long as you know where the label came from and how much gluten it allows for, you can safely experiment to find what foods work best for you.