'Gluten-free' defined at last

The much-anticipated definition of the term “gluten-free” was just released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). At last. It is the final ruling that defines “gluten-free” on food labels from a law enacted in 2004 – the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act.

What’s the big deal? Celiac disease – an autoimmune disorder which requires the strict avoidance of gluten – affects an estimated 3 million Americans. (Gluten is a composite of proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye and barley grains.) And some people are sensitive to gluten even without a clear diagnosis of celiac disease.

Until now, trying to figure out which foods were free of gluten was tricky since no standard existed for the term “gluten-free.” Finally, the definition exists. One thing the FDA is clear about: A food labeled “gluten-free” cannot contain any wheat, rye, barley or mixtures of these grains. And any incidental gluten in a food must be less than 20 parts per million (ppm) in order to carry the gluten-free label.

Why not “zero” gluten instead of the allowed 20 ppm? No scientifically validated method exists that can reliably detect gluten at a level lower than 20 parts per million. And research suggests that most individuals with celiac disease can tolerate occasional trace amounts of gluten (less than 20 ppm) with no adverse effects.

Any food that makes the “gluten-free” claim must abide by this new definition. Any food regulated by the FDA, that is. Meats, poultry, some egg products and alcohol are excluded from the “gluten-free” rule because they are regulated by other agencies, not the FDA. Manufacturers have until August 2014 to get their gluten-free labeling act together, says the FDA.