The Latest on Gluten-Free Foods

We’ve heard a lot about gluten-free foods; most supermarkets even have a gluten-free section. But what does it mean, and how do you tell if you should be eating gluten-free food? Here, from the federal Food and Drug Administration, are some answers as well as information on the new labeling that’s going into effect right now:

What is it?
Gluten means the proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains.

Why can it be a problem?

As many as 3 million people in the United States have celiac disease. That occurs when the body’s natural defense system reacts to gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine. If you don’t have a healthy intestinal lining, your body can’t absorb the nutrients it needs. As a result, people with celiac disease may suffer delayed growth (in children) as well as nutrient deficiencies. In turn, that can lead to conditions like anemia and osteoporosis. Other problems, the FDA says, can include diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease and even intestinal cancers.

How can consumers be sure the foods they’re buying really are gluten-free?

In 2013, the FDA issued a rule for what gluten-free foods can contain. Manufaturers have until August 2014 to be in compliance. The bottom line: In addition to limiting the unavoidable presence of gluten to less than 20 ppm (parts per million) the FDA will allow manufacturers to label a food “gluten-free” if the food does not contain:

an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains

an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten

an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more ppm gluten

Foods such as bottled spring water, fruits and vegetables, and eggs can also be labeled “gluten-free” if they inherently don’t have any gluten.

Celiac-disease experts say that the new labeling will provide consumers with safer choices.

“This standard ‘gluten-free’ definition will eliminate uncertainty about how food producers label their products and will assure people with celiac disease that foods labeled ‘gluten-free’ meet a clear standard,” Michael R. Taylor, J.D., deputy FDA commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in an FDA consumer update. “The ‘gluten-free’ definition will help people make food choices with confidence.”

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