An FDA rule that goes into effect next year will require food labeled “gluten free” to contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten, a protein composite. While the regulation primarily targets packaged food, restaurants also will be affected. Here are answers to some common questions on gluten.
By Julie Jargon
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat, barley and rye.
What kinds of food contain gluten?
Bread, pasta, cereal, cookies and crackers are the obvious sources of gluten, but many people don’t realize that wheat is the basis of many kinds of soy sauce. Gluten, which acts as a thickening agent, is also used in other unexpected products such as salad dressing, sauces and marinades, soup and pie fillings.
Who should avoid gluten?
Anyone who either has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten damages the lining of the small intestine and thus interferes with the absorption of nutrients, or who has a gluten sensitivity. According to the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment in Boston, an estimated 2 million to 3 million Americans have celiac disease. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimates that another 18 million Americans have a gluten sensitivity.
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Doctors usually start by conducting a blood test to look for antibodies that suggest an abnormal immune response. If the blood test is positive, a biopsy of the small intestine is taken to determine whether the lining is inflamed.
What’s the difference between having celiac disease and having a gluten sensitivity?
Gluten sensitivity has been used to describe people who can’t tolerate gluten and experience symptoms similar to those with celiac disease, such as diarrhea, anemia and joint pain, but who lack the same antibodies and intestinal damage found in those with celiac disease.
Why do people who don’t have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity avoid gluten – and should they?
Avoiding gluten has become de rigueur for many Americans who don’t have any diagnosed health problems associated with it. Nearly 30% of Americans say they’re trying to avoid gluten, up from 25.5% three years ago, according to market research firm NPD Group Inc.
“Many factors contribute to the rising interest in the gluten-free diet, such as celebrities and athletes touting its perceived health benefits, the increased availability of gluten-free food and the growing number of people self-prescribing a gluten-free diet,” says Beckee Moreland, Director of Gluten-Free Industry Initiatives for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. She said many people think that gluten-free food is better for digestive health “but in reality, gluten-free processed foods tend to be higher in sugar and fat and lower in fiber.”
In addition, a gluten-free diet can be harmful for people who don’t need to avoid gluten for medical reasons because whole grains contain a host of essential vitamins and minerals.
What are restaurants and packaged-food makers doing in response to the rising demand for gluten-free products?
Food makers have been rolling out new products made without gluten. Restaurants have been offering menu items made with gluten-free ingredients, often along with disclaimers informing customers that they can’t guarantee the final meal will be entirely gluten-free. All food purveyors next year will have to comply with a new FDA regulation requiring food labeled as “gluten free” to contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten.
What should people ask for in restaurants or look for on labels?
Diners should ask servers or restaurant managers whether gluten-free ingredients are kept apart from ingredients containing gluten and whether the meal can truly be considered gluten-free. When buying packaged food from grocery stores, customers should look for a gluten-free stamp on a product’s package. The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, a nonprofit that certifies products as gluten-free, ensures that food that receives its certification is made in a facility or production line separate from food that contains gluten.