Reliability of GF labels

Most foods labeled “gluten free” are meeting new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling requirements; however, some improvement is called for.

Recently published studies from the FDA and an independent testing company found that most products sampled were complying with new gluten-free labeling rules even before they went into effect in the United States last August. Manufacturers can label foods gluten free only if they contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten or are inherently gluten free.

The FDA conducted its study1of products found in grocery stores, testing 275 foods labeled gluten free. More than 98 percent had less than 20 ppm of gluten, and only three products, or about 1 percent, tested to 20 ppm or higher. Researchers also evaluated 186 foods that were not marked gluten free but did not contain wheat, barley or rye based on the ingredients list. In this group of 36, nearly 20 percent contained 20 ppm or higher.

The foods sampled included a variety of products, from soup to breakfast cereal to beverages. In the group without a gluten-free label, products containing oats were most likely to have unsafe levels of gluten. The FDA study calls for better protocols to prevent contamination of oats.

Researchers also looked at the gluten content of foods with advisory labels such as “manufactured in a facility that also processes wheat” or “manufacturer on equipment that also processes wheat.” Of the 29 products that were labeled gluten free and had one of these warnings, only one contained 20 ppm or more of gluten and would be considered misbranded.

However, among products that were not labeled gluten free, half of the 36 that contained 20 ppm or more of gluten had warning statements. Consumers should take seriously any wheat or gluten advisory on a product that does not have a gluten-free label, the study notes.

An independent U.S. study2 by Gluten Free Watchdog, a private testing company in Boston, sampled 158 products labeled gluten free, of which 46 were certified gluten free by an independent third-party organization. This assessment found that 5 percent of all gluten-free products and 4 percent of certified gluten-free foods contained 20 ppm or more gluten, underlining a need for greater quality control.

1 Sharma G.M., Pereira M. and Williams, K.M, “Gluten detection in foods available in the United States—A market survey,” Food Chemistry, Feb. 15, 2015, 169:120-6, doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2014.07.134.


2  Thompson, T. and Simpson, S., “A comparison of gluten levels in labeled gluten-free and certified gluten-free foods sold in the United States,” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Oct. 1, 2014, doi:10.1038/ejcn.2014.211.

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