What Does Gluten-Free Mean: FDA Version

As of August 2014, foods sold in the United States that are labeled gluten free must comply with specific standards. That is the the good news. The bad news is there are a few caveats. Most of them are mixed into the article below.

First, this rule applies to packaged food, including foods imported into the United States. Dietary supplements are covered; prescription and over-the-counter medicines are not. Neither are foods, such as meats, that are regulated by the USDA, or Department of Agriculture. Booze, the purview of the TTB, is also not covered, but as you’ll see, you’re likely safe there.

To be labeled gluten free, a food must:

  • Not contain a gluten-filled ingredient or ingredient made from one of the gluten-containing grains, i.e., wheat, barley, rye, or triticale.
  • Be inherently gluten free. For example, apples and tomatoes are inherently gluten free, as are pretty much all fruits and vegetables.
  • If the food contains a gluten-containing ingredient (wheat, barley, rye, or triticale), the food whether or not processed to remove gluten, must contain 20 PPM (parts per million) or less of gluten. This is a tiny, tiny amount of gluten.
  • Note: The 20 PPM rule includes foods that may have been subject to cross-contamination, including from packaging materials. If you are worried and/or super-sensitive that the 20 PPM rule is too lenient, please note there are Celiac and GF organizations that do their own testing, often with lower requirements. See this article from The Gluten Dude.
  • Foods are still required to indicate on their labels if they contain any of the eight top allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean, in accordance with the USA Food Allergen Labeling Act (aka FALCPA).
  • To make things a bit trickier — and this, I promise, is the trickiest part — foods containing wheat that has been processed to remove gluten to the point where the 20 PPM or less threshold is met must include a statement indicating the wheat has been processed to meet the FDA requirements for gluten free.
  • While the USDA is not part of this regulations, many foods may be voluntarily labeled gluten free. This includes meats, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs (most of which are naturally GF). Personally, I always choose foods like meat, etc with GF labels over other choices. USDA-controlled items labeled gluten free must comply with the FDA requirements.
  • The gluten free label is NOT mandatory (alas), so a food may be gluten free but not clearly labeled. So yeah, that bunch of grapes without the GF label? Still safe to eat.

In absence of a helpful, universal symbol that is clear and easily recognized, foods may be labeled “gluten free”. Or they may say “without gluten”, “no gluten”, or even “free of gluten”, or something like that. This wording is specific. Foods that say “made with no gluten-containing ingredients” or “not made with gluten-containing ingredients” are not necessarily gluten free.

So, yeah, you still have to parse labels.

As with the USDA, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) isn’t part of this rule. However, however!, the TTB’s policy with regard to gluten is in line with the FDA’s. It still amuses that this announcement from the FDA so baldly states they can’t properly validate beers made from grains processed to be gluten free (wheat, barley, and rye).

And here’s the really bad news: this does NOT apply to foods served in restaurants. I believe this is only a matter of time, but for now all of your standard questions and verifications must remain in place.

Good Resources:
From Gluten-Free Watchdog  (this article links to lots of helpful information)

Tip of the Week

What happens if you suspect a food you’ve purchased does, in fact, contain gluten? Contact the FDA. Be specific — brand name, lot numbers, where you purchased, when you purchased, etc. Facts matter.

Menu of the Week

I regret I never had a proper banh mi sandwich, and I suspect, unless I get very lucky, I never will. This Vietnamese sandwich is served on crusty French bread with flavorful meat and pickled vegetables. In absence of the French bread (though if your local store stocks the Udi’s baguettes, they work quite well!), I captured the flavors of the sandwich, serving it with a pickled vegetable salad and a bit of rice.

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One thought on “What Does Gluten-Free Mean: FDA Version”

  1. LOVED the post. Many people ask me if I ever “cheat” and I explain to them that “you are either all in, or you are not.” Been GF for over 10 years after being diagnosed after an endoscopy. Gluten did not make me sick but kept me from absorbing nutrients from what I ate. As a 6’4″ 275 lb. male I had less iron then a menstruating woman. After initial diagnosis food shopping trips took a great deal of time but today the abundance of GF products makes it much easier. Keep up the good work.

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