One year ago the FDA issued new guidelines for gluten-free food labeling. Until now, the term “gluten-free” was unregulated, leaving it up to food manufacturers to decide whether or not to label a food gluten-free. As of this week, rules go into effect to ensure that any foods labeled gluten-free contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. Some gluten-free food manufacturers, who cater to those with Celiac disease, limit the gluten contained in their products to 10 parts per million, even less than the new standard. However, the 20 parts per million limit is generally believed by the medical community to be an undetectable amount of gluten, which would not cause illness or a flare up of symptoms for people with Celiac disease.
While some consider the gluten-free diet a fad, new labeling regulations may help raise awareness that Celiac is a serious disease that necessitates a gluten-free diet. Accurate labeling can help increase the integrity of the gluten-free market for the approximately 3 million Americans who suffer from Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can damage the lining of the small intestine. For those with Celiac disease, just 50 milligrams of gluten can trigger an immune response, which can interfere with nutrient absorption and cause abdominal pain, unhealthy weight loss, fatigue and long-term medical problems.
For the millions of consumers who have gone gluten-free for self-diagnosed gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, this new ruling recognizes a growing dietary trend. It is now estimated that 30% of American adults are cutting down or avoiding gluten for non-medical reasons. Although this dietary trend is touted for quick weight loss, those whose diets rely largely on processed gluten-free products may not see any actual weight loss. The challenge of a gluten-free diet is giving up the three glutinous grains, wheat, rye and barley, that are found not only in bread, pizza, pasta and beer but also in a majority of processed foods.
The question remains as to why so many Americans are going gluten-free. Many say they just feel better without it. A decade ago most people may not have been aware of Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. The number of diagnoses of gluten sensitive illnesses has increased in recent years. Perhaps this is the result of more gluten containing foods in our diets. Walk any supermarket aisle and you will see an explosion of wheat based food products. Perhaps without realizing it, we are eating more gluten containing products than ever before, which may be overburdening our digestive systems.
As food manufacturers have responded en masse with a surge of gluten-free foods, it’s important to keep in mind that not all foods labeled gluten-free are necessarily healthy. Gluten-free processed foods tend to be high in sugar, fat and calories, so be sure to read labels. The new regulations apply to supplements, all processed and packaged foods and to some naturally gluten-free foods such as fruits, vegetables, shell eggs and fish as well. Trend or not, the gluten-free diet has resulted in a better variety of options for those who must avoid gluten at all costs to manage their disease. Be aware that some foods labeled gluten-free, which do not meet the new labeling standards, may still be found on store shelves. When in doubt, check with the food manufacturer before consuming.