Most gluten-free food follows FDA rules

gluten-free labels
Most gluten-free products meet FDA requirements

Most food labeled “gluten free” is meeting new Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements, a recent study by FDA researchers shows.

But gluten-free consumers should be cautious when purchasing certain kinds of products that do not have the label even if the products appear to be gluten free by the ingredient list, the researchers note.

More than 98 percent of foods labeled “gluten free” tested to less than 20 parts per million of gluten, the standard set by FDA, the study published in the Food Chemistry journal found.

Meanwhile, nearly 20 percent of foods that were not labeled “gluten free” but appeared to be by ingredient lists would not meet the standard, the study showed. Most of these were products that contained regular oats.

Researchers at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition tested 275 foods with a gluten-free label. Only three contained more than 20 ppm of gluten and would be considered in violation of the gluten-free labeling rules.

The gluten-free food tested included a wide range of products in 12 categories, including grains, seeds, condiments, sauces, soup, baking mixes and baked foods, pasta, breakfast cereal, snack, energy bars, frozen desserts and meat substitutes.

The three products that tested at 20 ppm or greater were in the breakfast cereal, meat/meat substitutes/frozen food and “other” categories. Other included yeast, corn starch, tapioca starch, xanthan gum, soy nut/peanut butter, couscous, polenta and dried cranberries. The study did not name the specific products that had positive test results. The product in the meat and frozen food category had more than 100 ppm of gluten.

Of 186 foods that did not have a gluten-free label, 36 contained 20 ppm of gluten or more. Of these, 19 products had more than 100 ppm of gluten.

In this group, researchers tested foods without a gluten-free label that did not list wheat, barley or rye as ingredients. Consumers often rely on ingredient lists to determine if foods are gluten free when they are not labeled as such. Researchers did include non-labeled products that contained oats, including oats that were not specialty gluten-free oats. Although the FDA defines only wheat, barley and rye as gluten-containing grains, regular oats are largely considered unsafe on the gluten-free diet, and gluten-free consumers are advised not to eat foods that contain them. Only oats that are specially grown, transported and processed to eliminate cross-contamination are recognized as safe for those who have celiac disease.

The study notes that there was a “strong correlation” between positive test results and the use of oats as an ingredient, with 22 cereals  containing more than 20 ppm and 14 of those exceeding 100 ppm.

The grains/seeds/nuts and legumes category had the second largest number of test results of 20 ppm or more, with six, followed by granola and energy bars, with four. All the bars contained oats.

Researchers used the same categories of food for both foods labeled and not labeled gluten free,  with the exception of baking mixes, baked goods and pasta since these products almost always contain gluten when not labeled gluten free.

“The results indicate that, depending on the food category, gluten is detected in a greater percentage of non –GF labeled foods at levels that may pose a health risk to celiac [disease] patients,” the study says.

Researchers also looked at the connection between statements about shared facilities and equipment and gluten test results. Of the 29 products that were labeled gluten free and had one of these so-called “advisory” statements, only one contained more than 20 ppm of gluten and would be considered misbranded.

Among products that were not labeled gluten free, half of the 36 that contained 20 ppm or more of gluten had advisory statements. “The presence of gluten in a significant number of foods with a gluten/wheat advisory shows that these warnings should be taken seriously,” the study notes.

Researchers concluded that 98.9 percent of foods labeled gluten free comply with current regulations, but also noted that when a product is not labeled gluten free and contains oats or has an advisory statement, safety might be a concern for those with celiac disease.

The study, titled “Gluten detection in foods available in the United States – A market survey,” also reported on test results of more than 5 ppm of gluten.  Of foods labeled gluten free, 10 showed positive results when tested to this level. Of foods not labeled gluten free, 48 were positive. However, most of these foods would meet the FDA standard, with only those with more than 20 ppm exceeding it.

Consumers have wondered how proactive the FDA would be in holding foods with a gluten-free label to the rules. This study could be an indication the FDA is taking a look at what the potential for violation might be.

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