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The Truth About Gluten Free Labeling

The truth about gluten free labeling may surprise even the most savvy gluten free shoppers.

If your child or another family member has celiac disease, then chances are you know the importance of maintaining a gluten free diet. It’s the only treatment for this disease; therefore, it’s imperative for us to know the product ingredients and processing from food labeling. However, this is where it gets tricky.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does NOT require that gluten be labeled on ingredients in the United States. In fact, only the top 8 allergens, one of which is wheat, are required to be labeled as a result of the 2004 Food Allergy Labeling & Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). This is problematic for people with celiac disease for the following reasons:

1. First, many newly diagnosed families do not realize that wheat free doesn’t mean gluten free. Gluten comes from wheat yes, but it can also come from barley or rye, both of which are not required to be listed on food labels in the United States.

2. There is a lack of regulation on gluten free labeling. As of August 2014, the FDA agreed on a gluten free labeling standard. It states that products containing less that 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten can voluntarily be labeled as gluten free by the manufacturer.

However, the FDA does not regulate the type and frequency of product testing which should be done on an ongoing basis to make sure that the product is continuously testing at 20 ppm or less. Yes, you read that correctly. They can label it gluten free, but the testing isn’t regulated. How is that possible? How does that make sense? I have often asked the same question with no good answer. We are on an honor system where we are hoping that the food really is gluten free, but as was the case with Cheerios last year we cannot know that with certainty.

*Update: The FDA released a statement based on their research findings in May 2017 that most of the products claiming to be gluten free are in fact gluten free. This is reassuring progress and means that the food manufacturers are getting better at gluten free manufacturing; however, it is still safer to look for a gluten free certified label on product packaging.

So, how can you make sure your food is safe?

ALWAYS look for a gluten free certified label when shopping. This is different than a label just saying gluten free, even if they do try to mask it in a cute graphic (which many do!). If it says certified then that means that there is a 3rd party independent, impartial organization that regularly audits and tests the food to make sure that it is in fact following the FDA’s gluten free standard.

If a product does not say that it’s gluten free certified, then the best thing to do is to call the manufacturer before you buy it. Ask them if they do testing, how often, and what kind of cross contamination procedures are in place during processing. From there, you will be able to get information to help you make an informed decision as to whether this product is safe for your family. If you don’t feel satisfied with the manufacturer’s answers, then it’s best to skip it and buy another product.

Lastly, be a local advocate. When you are shopping at your favorite grocery store, tell the store manager how important gluten free certification is. They may not know, and their number one job is to keep their customers happy so that they keep coming back. If everyone does this, awareness will increase at the grocery stores and retailers and we will see more certified products on the shelves.