Gluten-free labels and disclaimers

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Amy Jones, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a dietitian and
celiac disease support group leader from
Bellefontaine, Ohio.

 I’m confused about statements like “made on shared equipment” or “made in a shared facility.” Does this mean that the product is contaminated with gluten? Are the food companies just trying to cover themselves in case I get sick? How can they label such products gluten free?

Allergen advisory statements like these certainly can be confusing. However, products with such a statement on their packaging do not necessarily contain gluten. Remember that food manufacturers are not required to put allergen advisory statements on packaging. Some manufacturers may choose to, but others may not. This differs from food allergy labeling (i.e., contains eggs or peanuts), which is required.

The FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule states that as long as the final product contains
less than 20 parts per million of gluten, the product may be labeled gluten free.
The FDA also states that allergen advisory statements are not meant to take the place of cleaning equipment or other cross-contamination prevention. In short, a company can’t be lax in its procedures and just put an allergen advisory statement on the label to protect itself.

I read online that sourdough bread might be safe for those with celiac disease. Is this true?  

Unfortunately, this is not true.  Sourdough bread (or any other bread made from fermented wheat flour) is not safe for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. You might have come across information about a 2011 study involving two people who ate sourdough bread. While they didn’t experience digestive symptoms after eating the bread, it is important to note that they still suffered intestinal damage.

The fermentation process used to make sourdough may reduce gluten content, but not to a safe level. In fact, testing shows that some of these breads contain extremely high levels of gluten. Those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity should avoid sourdough products.

I bought a box of a new brand of gluten-free granola bars yesterday, but when I got it home I noticed that the ingredients list includes “barley malt extract.” I thought barley wasn’t allowed on the gluten-free diet.  

First of all, great job double checking the ingredients list even though the product was labeled gluten free. It’s always a good idea to look at the ingredients a product contains, especially one you’ve never purchased before. Some manufacturers believe that barley and malt are allowed in products labeled gluten free as long as final testing indicates less than 20 parts per million of gluten. However, the FDA has stated that barley and malt are not allowed in a product labeled gluten free. Your granola bars are mislabeled and should be reported to the FDA. Go to fda.gov/safety/reportaproblem/consumercomplaintcoordinators/default.htm to find contact information for your state’s FDA consumer complaint coordinator.

Last week my sister brought over a bag of buckwheat flour that she found at a discount store. I know that buckwheat is a naturally gluten-free grain, but I don’t see “gluten free” anywhere on the label.
Is this safe to eat?

You are correct that buckwheat is a naturally gluten-free grain, but I would not recommend that you use this particular bag of buckwheat flour. A 2010 study showed that some naturally gluten-free grains are at risk for contamination with gluten. This may happen in fields, on trucks or in processing plants. In light of that study, experts recommend purchasing grains and flours specifically labeled gluten free. Even if it’s a naturally gluten-free flour like buckwheat, you should still look for the gluten-free label.

I went to my favorite Italian restaurant last night and was surprised to see they had a gluten-free menu! I was just about to order when I saw the disclaimer that they could not guarantee that there would be no cross-contamination with gluten in the kitchen. I was so upset. Does that mean this gluten-free menu is useless for me?

I can understand your worry, especially in an Italian restaurant where there would be a higher risk of contact with gluten. However, many restaurants have procedures in place to prevent cross-contamination. It’s a good idea to ask questions. For example, are they using separate containers of sauce and toppings for gluten-free pizza? Do they prepare the gluten-free pizza on a separate countertop or clean baking sheet? How do they separate the gluten-free pizza from other pizzas in the oven? Do they use a separate pizza cutter? Do they use a separate pot with clean water to boil gluten-free pasta? Do they drain the noodles in a separate colander? Are their cream-style sauces thickened with flour? If the restaurant offers gluten-free bread, is it heated separately from the regular bread? Is the finished pizza or pasta served on a different color plate or
in some other way to indicate that it is gluten free?

Asking questions will allow you to decide if you feel comfortable ordering from the gluten-free menu. 

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