Think you can have your gluten-free cake and eat it, too? Not so fast. Despite the hundreds of products that sport gluten-free labels, the FDA has no official standards to regulate the claim. For those striving to limit their gluten intake, that lack of regulation can be frustrating. But for those with celiac disease, hypersensitivities to cereal grains, or certain autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (in which the body mistakenly attacks the thyroid), a “gluten-free” food with traces of gluten can pose a serious health threat. Fortunately, new rules likely to be unveiled later this year should clear up the confusion.
As it stands now, the FDA only requires companies to state whether common allergens, such as wheat or nuts, are ingredients in a product. Labeling regulations are lax for products potentially cross-contaminated with allergens during the manufacturing process — something that happens frequently in facilities that process a wide variety of foods. That means small quantities of gluten can easily sneak into products labeled “gluten-free.”
The FDA is currently evaluating the issue. Many experts anticipate that if the FDA does adopt new regulations, they will mirror those governing prod- uct labeling in several European countries, which allow companies to label their products gluten-free if they contain fewer than 20 parts per mil- lion (ppm) of gluten. Many researchers assert that those levels are tolerable even for people with celiac disease, says Danna Korn, founder of Raising Our Celiac Kids and author of Living Gluten- Free for Dummies (Wiley, 2010).
In the meantime, you can eliminate the guesswork by avoiding processed foods whenever possible. “The best way to avoid gluten is to eat products that aren’t manufactured,” says Korn. “Most natural, non- grain whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, meats, legumes and fish, are inherently gluten-free.”