One of the hardest challenges celiacs face is maintaing a strict gluten free diet. And one of the most frustrating aspects of this battle is mislabeled gluten free food.
It’s a daily fight on multiple fronts to ensure cross-contamination (or simply outright gluten) doesn’t sneak into our food and undermine our health.
The FDA defined the term “gluten free” in 2013 (less than 20ppm of gluten) and required compliance in 2014.
However, FDA regulation does not require manufacturers to test for the presence of gluten in their starting ingredients or finished foods that are labeled gluten-free.
So, in a nutshell, any manufacturer can label their food gluten free without having to do any due diligence to ensure that it acutally IS gluten free.
And while you would hope the brand ramifications of making an inaccurate claim would motivate companies to ensure their product labeling is accurate, that’s not always the case.
Often you simply end up with mislabeled gluten free food. Gluten free Cheerios are still making people sick, even after their very high profile recall in 2015.
AUSTRALIA RESEARCH ON MISLABELED GLUTEN FREE FOOD
A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in November 2018 found gluten in 3% of 256 of the most commonly purchased gluten free foods.
Researchers purchased multiple batches of mislabeled gluten free food to determine if these were solitary instances of contamination. They were not solitary–gluten was found in every batch of the contaminated foods.
If you are unfamiliar with other country’s laws, New Zealand and Australia have the strictest labeling laws in the world. They have a zero tolerance policy.
If a food is labeled gluten free, it cannot contain any detectable gluten. Pretty cool if you ask me. But unfortunately, independent researchers are still finding the gluten free labeling process to be flawed.
This comes on the heels of a restaurant survey (May 2018) published in the same journal. It found 9% of gluten free restaurant dishes contained gluten (159 samples of 127 gluten free dishes).
US MISLABELED GLUTEN FREE FOOD REGULATION
In the US, if gluten free food contains gluten, you can report it to the FDA, and (in theory) the FDA should take some sort of action against the company producing it.
However, there are several challenges in accomplishing this. First and foremost is that you really only have your symptoms to rely on.
You can also use a Nima gluten sensor to aid detection, but neither the Nima sensor nor your symptoms provide sufficient proof of gluten being present.
To register a complaint with the FDA, you have to prove your food contains gluten. This requires sending the food off to a diagnostics lab. And this is usually where most people give up and decide to take their chances.
GLUTEN TESTING IN FOOD
“At the present time the R5 ELISA (R7001 Ridascreen Gliadin) is widely regarded as the best available formally validated ELISA for assessing final food product for gluten.
The R5 ELISA is one of only two commercially available ELISAs validated at the levels used for regulatory purposes and official governmental methods (the other is the Morinaga Wheat Protein ELISA).
The R5 ELISA is included in the FDA’s Question and Answer page on the gluten-free labeling rule as one of the methods the agency will use for rule enforcement if testing a product becomes necessary.”
That quote is from Gluten Free Watchdog, an LLC that was founded to make state-of-the-art gluten-free food testing data directly available to you, the consumer.
They independently test gluten-free-labeled products and post the results here. If you haven’t checked out this resource, you should take a minute to do so–it’s pretty valuable tool.
As for US statistics, a study by Gluten Free Watchdog published in the journal European Journal of Clinical Nutrition tested 158 products labeled gluten-free. Eight of those samples (5.1 %) had gluten levels of 20 ppm or more.
Keep in mind that 20ppm is an FDA standard, it’s not a hard medical line for celiacs. Many celiacs react to less than 20ppm.
The US took a big step forward with the FDA ruling in 2013, but absent a hard requirement for manufactuerer testing, and absent FDA enforcement (it can be a challenge to get the FDA to engage), it’s still a mine field out there.
You may get lucky and navigate it unscathed some days, but other days may not be so sunshine and roses. So what’s the solution?
My humble opinion is that a cost-effective means of testing for gluten at the consumer level would be the most helpful.
The Nima sensor is a good start, though it definitely has its limitations (accuracy, cost, etc.). But I hope it paves the way for future technological advances that will allow celiacs to eat packaged and restaurant foods without fear.
I guess the bright side is that multiple countries seem to be working toward the same goal, so maybe working together we can get there sooner.