Gluten-Free: More Than A Matter of Trust

Gluten-Free: More Than A Matter of Trust

Celiac disease (CD) is an autoimmune digestive disorder that damages the small intestine and is triggered by eating foods containing gluten. As many as 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, but another 1.4 million are suspected of having CD yet remain undiagnosed, making it a significant public health issue, according to Packaged Facts’ Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S., 6th Edition. While they suffer the pain resulting from the disease, these consumers tend to attribute their illness to other sources.

In August of 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a regulation that defined the term “gluten-free” for food labeling. The definition was intended to provide consumers – especially those with celiac disease – the assurance that “gluten-free” claims on food products will be consistent and reliable across the food industry, and give them a standardized tool for managing their health and dietary intake.

FDA’s regulation for gluten-free food labeling standardized what “gluten-free” means on the food label. But “Gluten-free” on a label remains as a voluntary claim—not a requirement—that manufacturers may elect to use in the labeling of their foods. The FDA does state that manufacturers that choose to label their foods as “gluten-free” are accountable for “using the claim in a truthful and not misleading manner” and for “complying with all requirements established by the regulation and enforced by FDA.”

The FDA has declared that gluten-free foods may be labeled in a variety of ways:

  • “Gluten-free”
  • “Free of gluten”
  • “No gluten”
  • “Without gluten”

The FDA regulation applies to these four variations.

Despite that regulatory action, the fact that it is voluntary and not a requirement is a source of confusion for many consumers who remain uncertain as to the trustworthiness of the labeling. Indeed, a 2016 study conducted for the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) and the Allergen Control Group (ACG) found that a remarkable 90% of consumers don’t trust labels indicating a product is gluten-free. There is an even greater problem in that many products containing gluten fail to say so.

CCA created a Gluten-Free Certification Program which the organization claims is helping to build confidence in labeling among that nation’s consumers. CCA’s research indicates that gluten-free products have been easier to find and purchase since the Program went into effect. As a follow-up CCA has called for a global gluten-free definition.

In the U.S., the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) is dedicated to providing certification services to producers of gluten-free products through its Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), an industry program using quality assessment and control measures throughout production, in order to provide assurance to consumers of the safety of their foods.

Another organization, the Celiac Support Association (CSA) offers a Gluten Free Certification Program. The CSA is the largest non-profit celiac support group in America, with chapters and resource units across the country, and members worldwide. The Certification Program gives companies a CSA Recognition Seal which denotes products that are free (less than 5 parts per million) of wheat, barley, rye, oats, their crosses and derivatives in product, processing and packaging (WBRO-free).

The CSA notes that its Recognition Seal is a certification program “reserved for the ‘Best of the Best’ in the most risk-free choices and requirements exceed the ‘gluten-free’ definitions by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and adopted by the international Codex Alimentarius Commission.” The Certification Program uses the testing facilities of the University of Nebraska Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) laboratory.

For the millions of people who have celiac disease these various certifications are of great value, not only helping them to manage a serious health condition, but providing psychological and emotional relief as well.

-- by Howard Waxman