Gluten-free means something doesn’t contain any gluten, Right?
Wrong. It is easy to assume, as we did, that this is the case but we have found that the superficially simple term, gluten-free, can in reality mean many things. One perhaps surprising thing is certain: foods legally labelled gluten-free are not necessarily entirely free of all traces of gluten. In fact, European and North American governments allow minimal contamination of up to 20 parts per million (ppm) in any product labelled gluten-free, despite acknowledging the existence of research showing that the most sensitive among us can react to as microscopic an amount as 1 ppm . Until there is a separate category of no gluten foods we need to understand that in practice the blanket term ‘gluten-free’ might encompass some where the levels of gluten are high enough to cause us a problem.
How do I recognise gluten from a label?
European, Australian, North American and Canadian regulations legally require gluten to be listed separately as an ingredient. Companies also need to say whether their products are manufactured in facilities where wheat (amongst other things) are handled. Perhaps the idea behind this is that people who are gluten sensitive can be made aware that there is some risk of cross-contamination and exercise their own judgment, but in practice this is rather difficult without further information – how can you quantify the risk?
In the case of Mary’s Gone Cracker’s Ancient Spice Thins we are left in something of a dilemma. The front of the box clearly states that its contents are gluten-free but (having bought them relying on this) we find that the side of the box says in bold type that it is ‘ Manufactured.. on equipment that produces products containing wheat (and) gluten..” When we see this sort of disclaimer on a box we normally put it straight back on the shelf – it just isn’t worth the risk. Having bought them, what are we to make of this, do we rely on the gluten-free headline, or the buyer beware note?
Is gluten free the same as very low gluten?
No. According to European legislation and international standards only foods containing 20ppm of gluten can be labelled gluten-free. The standard for manufacturers to use the label ‘very low gluten’ is 5 times higher at 100ppm, and can only be used where cereals such as oats have been specially processed to reduce the level of gluten in them. Given that coeliacs are generally sensitive to extremely low levels of gluten, it may not be safe for them to eat foods labelled very low gluten. Those who are gluten sensitive may also need to exercise caution, leaving low gluten products in the shop. Confusingly oats seem to have a category of their own, under international standards, they can only be labelled very low gluten if they contain less than 20ppm, the same level as required for gluten-free products.
Have manufacturers helped?
Some manufacturers have chosen to register their products for accreditation with a range of organisations enabling them to use a variation of the easily recognisable crossed wheat or GF symbol. The use of such symbols and logos makes life much easier for those avoiding gluten. It also makes commercial sense. The US gluten-free food industry is projected to reach US$ 8.5 billion by 2015.
Gluten-free organisation accreditation
Manufacturers of products such as the Massachusetts based Tazo Stone Ground chocolate is one company out of 22,000 worldwide who have submitted their products to testing by the independent Gluten-Free Certification Organisation who set a more rigorous minimum benchmark of 10 ppm, in line with Canadian standards, twice as stringent as those of the 20 ppm U.S. FDA minimum and therefore potentially safer. For foods to be accredited to this standard by this organisation they will have been continuously tested both during manufacturing and at point of sale. As there are significant annual costs involved in obtaining and maintaining this certification, you can be assured that manufacturers such as Taza take the elimination of gluten very seriously.
A North American organisation, the Celiac Sprue Association sets even more stringent criteria; a maximum gluten level of 5ppm. Whilst this logo may be more common in the US, we haven’t seen the CSA seal on any of the products we have reviewed so far, but may be worth looking out for these if you either live in America or are travelling there. The New Zealand coeliac association also licences members to use a crossed wheat symbol for products that have no detectible gluten, that is below 3ppm. Unfortunately, none of the products it has so far certified seem to be available on the international market, but it is very encouraging that it is possible to test to that level of purity.
What is of interest in a food label?
Quite a lot for the gluten challenged among us. If you are gluten challenged, you are likely to have spent hours standing in supermarket aisles wishing for a magnifying glass while you check labels. Finding a recognisable logo like the one on the Tazo chocolate is finding a gem…
Things to look out for on labels:
Be on the alert for manufacturers who change the composition of their products or they way they are manufactured
It is also worth bearing in mind that manufacturers may change their ingredients or methods of production, so it is worth checking from time to time that ingredients of known ‘safe’ foods haven’t changed, or if you have an unexpected reaction after eating them. Green and Black’s chocolate for instance was at one time labeled gluten-free but now carries the warning that it is made in a facility that also processes wheat. We almost always put items like this back on the shelf – we have found that it really isn’t worth the risk.
Do gluten-free foods cost more?
Coeliac UK estimates that gluten-free bakery products cost three to four times as much as their gluten-containing equivalents. However with the prospect of increased profit margins, more producers have turned their attention to ‘free-from’ produce making it one of the fastest growing categories. Industry experts have calculated the wheat and gluten free market rose 9.4% between 2012 and 2013. Hopefully greater competition will help to bring this price differential down.
Are gluten-free foods less appealing to eat?
Food researchers suggest 72% of those buying gluten-free products have not been diagnosed with coeliac disease, choosing to follow a gluten-free diet to alleviate symptoms of gluten sensitivity or in a belief that the products are healthier. They might be less inclined to continue if the products were sub-standard. Overall gluten-free products hold up well against their gluten-containing counterparts.
Should I look further than checking for gluten?
Checking labels for other ‘nasties’ makes sense. That said, many g-f foods appear to be made with more sensitivity than general mass-produced foods given the need to avoid cross-contamination, and many manufacturers are heroic in their efforts to provide safe alternatives.
What does this mean for someone trying to avoid gluten?
It is important to consider the nutritional quality of the processed gluten-free foods that you buy. The best solution may be to eat as little processed food as possible, relying as heavily as possible on fresh produce.
Are there any other things to consider?
Until labeling improves it may also be helpful to moderate use of ‘gluten-free’ foods. Significant consumption of breads, pastas and cereals that contain under the regulated level of gluten can mean that someone with coeliac disease can eat enough gluten to cause intestinal damage (estimated to be around 10mg in some people) despite carefully following a gluten-free diet.
How do I recognise gluten from a label?
Photograph by Yuma Tamai.