Health & Wellness

FDA calls for more specific gluten-free labels

Jon Elswick / Today
A variety of foods labeled Gluten Free are displayed in Frederick, Md.,

There’s gluten-free water. And, gluten-free mushrooms and gluten-free rice cereal.

Nutritionists have always known that mushrooms, water, and rice were gluten free, but as gluten-free diets have increased in popularity, some companies have slapped a gluten-free label on just about anything. Thanks to the FDA’s new requirements, the label gluten-free will actually mean that foods are gluten-free.

“The term gluten-free, which is used so much, has never had any regulation behind it,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.

For the three million Americans suffering from celiac disease, the new FDA-requirements for gluten-free labeling come as a welcome relief.

“For people who have celiac and have to be watching, [the FDA ruling] makes it a lot easier,” says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at UPMC Center for Sports Medicine in Pittsburgh.

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People with celiac disease are unable to tolerate gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. This leads to serious gastric distress, such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss, and can lead to permanent damage to the intestine. People with celiac disease must avoid all gluten to live without symptoms.

While most companies did not abuse the gluten-free labels (with one notable case for gluten-free fraud), there was no standard for what it was. It might have meant that a product had no wheat in it, but had barley in it, which also has gluten. It could have meant that the product itself was gluten-free but made in a facility that handled gluten, meaning there was cross-contamination. Now, if companies want to label a product as gluten-free, no gluten, without gluten, or free of gluten, there can only be 20 parts per million units of gluten, assuring it is gluten-free. This labeling excludes meat, poultry, and some egg products as well as alcoholic beverages, meaning that gluten-free beer might not live up to its label. And, restaurants do not have to comply with the gluten-free labeling. 

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“The FDA has been having so much pressure on them for labeling … enough pressure because of a boom in the market,” says Kirkpatrick. “I think at the heart of this is probably for the protection of people who have [celiac] disease.”

As little as 10 years ago, she says, people with celiac disease had few gluten-free grain options. But as awareness of the disease has increased and gluten-free diets have become more popular, gluten-free products flooded the market. Sales of gluten-free foods will likely reach $15 billion in sales by the end of 2016. People with celiac disease, the 18 million Americans with gluten intolerance, and people who believe that gluten-free is healthier account for the skyrocketing sales.

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While there has been an increase of people suffering from gluten intolerance, there’s debate in the research community if it even exists. In May, Peter Gibson of Monash University published a paper that questioned non-celiac gluten sensitivity — a disorder that Gibson discovered in a 2011 study. His 2014 study found that people who ate high-gluten, low-gluten, and no-gluten diets experienced stomach distress at the same rates.

“We don’t really have very good diagnostic tools to diagnose gluten sensitivity,” says Kirkpatrick.

But it seems that gluten-free is here to stay.

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“I don’t see it losing its trendiness any time soon,” says Kirkpatrick. “It may not even be a trend; it might be something that people are finding to be very important.”

Bonci says she sees many patients who believe that gluten causes everything from inflammation to Alzheimer’s disease.

“If people feel better when they [are without gluten], it is a reason to continue,” she says, adding a warning. “Gluten-free does not increase the nutritional value … a gluten-free cookie doesn’t become healthy.”