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'Gluten-free' got you confused? FDA may help

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert reports on the FDA's proposal for voluntary gluten-free standards to help regulate food sales and labeling.
/ Source: TODAY

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is recommending that voluntary standards be established for the first time that would govern how gluten-free products are sold and labeled. The first draft of the FDA proposal suggests that "companies may label foods ‘gluten-free’ if they don't contain wheat, barley, rye or their hybrids, or if they contain fewer than 20 parts per million gluten." Currently, some companies use the label to describe products that are naturally gluten-free, such as fruits or meat — which fuels the deepening nutrition confusion taking place in our grocer’s aisles. Under the FDA's proposal, that would be misbranding. This is an issue that could affect some three million Americans who suffer from celiac disease, which essentially is an inability to properly digest gluten. In addition, gluten-free products have become popular among some consumers who see them as a way of controlling or losing weight. Wal-Mart, which sells more than 900 gluten-free products under its private label, says that it will support the FDA proposal, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association says that it supports the FDA's effort to establish a voluntary standard, though it wants to evaluate the proposed definitions. One of the questions being raised about the FDA proposal was asked by Jane Andrews, a registered dietitian at Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. She told the Wall Street Journal that “she's surprised the FDA proposed to make it misbranding if companies label naturally gluten-free products gluten free. Wegmans has done that with products such as pasta sauce because many consumers demand to know, she said.” Another important note is that some consumer groups reportedly are concerned about the “fewer than 20 parts per million,” threshold, saying that even this much gluten has the potential to make some with celiac disease sick.

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Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .