When I was new to the gluten-free world, one of my biggest challenges was deciphering those confusing gluten-free (maybe??) labels at the grocery store. I wish I could say it gets easier with time. In some ways it does, but I’ll be honest, you’re in for a lifetime of detective work. Fortunately there have been some legal changes since 2013 in an effort to make this process less of a mystery, but as you’ll see below, they still leave you with a few cobwebs to clear.
If you have walked through a grocery store lately, chances are you saw more than a dozen products bearing a gluten-free label. Most grocery stores have an ever-growing gluten-free/natural products section which of course fills your heart with glee because that means so many more safe options for you, right?? Well, the answer is maybe, depending on your level of sensitivity.
When I was diagnosed in 2011, there were no official FDA requirements for gluten-free labeling. Thankfully the Celiac community is a passionate one and their efforts led to the FDA issuing Gluten-Free Label Laws, which were passed on August 5, 2013 and went into effect a year later (August 5, 2014). You can read the full text of the FDA statements here but allow me to give you a concise summary.
FDA Gluten-Free Label Requirements
- Sets the acceptable limit for gluten in a product at 20 ppm (parts per million)
- States that products with the gluten-free label must be either inherently free from gluten-containing grains OR derived from a gluten-containing grain, provided that it has been processed to remove the gluten, to a point which measures below 20 ppm
- Classifies gluten-free as a voluntary label (meaning manufacturers can decide whether or not to include it on their packaging)
- Requires food imported into the United States to meet the same requirements if using the gluten-free label
- Does NOT require manufactures to test for gluten in their products but the FDA will randomly test products to confirm compliance
Now let me start by saying that I am extremely grateful for the measures taken in 2014 in that at least I can be (relatively) confident that anything with a gluten-free label contains less than 20 ppm of gluten. However, the FDA law still leaves me with some concerns. First, because manufacturers are not required to test final products to ensure 20 ppm, I have to make sure it is a company (or person) that I trust. The good news is that in 2017, the FDA released data of their sampling and of the 250 products sampled, only 1 failed/was recalled. Second, the reality is that 20 ppm can still be too much for some people. In the FDA’s defense, this is the threshold agreed upon by the “celiac experts”, but every person’s sensitivity can vary. I’m not saying the number should necessarily be decreased- I just wish there was a way this was included on the label so that newly-diagnosed patients in particular, were aware of the threshold. Lastly, the labeling law does allow for manufacturers to use other phrases, such as “not made with gluten-containing ingredients” without meeting the established requirements. For a new shopper, that can certainly be confusing.
So now that I might have you feeling even more overwhelmed, there is good news too. You might have also come across products with that little certified gluten-free symbol (as opposed to just the phrase written on the package somewhere).
This is because the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG) developed the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) which provides 3rd party certification of gluten-free products. Again, you can read all the specifics here but the basics are below.
Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO)
- Requires that all ingredients AND finished products with this logo contain 10 ppm of gluten or less
- Does not allow any barley-based ingredients in a product
- Requires annual inspection of equipment, raw materials, and finished products in order to maintain certification
In other words, a product bearing this logo has been certified to be safe sometime within the past calendar year. You can add those products to your cart with as much certainty as you can probably find these days.
So of course now this begs the question: should you only buy items with the certified gluten-free logo?
Only you can make that decision but I will tell you for me the answer is no. Yes, I do feel safer when I pick up a new product with that logo; however, leaving out any product without the logo would mean giving up some wonderful, safe options for me. While the gluten-free certification is a great process for consumers, it is both expensive and time-consuming for the manufacturer. It states on the GFCO website that it can take anywhere from 6-18 weeks to get through the certification process and even then, new packaging has to be printed which includes the label so it will be even longer before it gets on the store shelves. Also, for a small start-up company, the cost of certification (and then annual inspection) might just be out of budget range for the first few years. This is why I love the chance to meet creators of new products at Gluten-Free Expos because I can talk to them in person about their products and production process and decide for myself whether it is safe for me.
So now what??
I know, I may have just added to the confusion in your life with all this information so let me leave you with a Cliffs Note version of how to navigate the puzzle that is grocery shopping in a gluten-free world.
Labeled Gluten-Free: Proceed with relative confidence that this item contains less than 20 ppm of gluten and should be safe for most consumers with Celiac or gluten sensitivity
Certified Gluten-Free: Proceed with strong confidence that this item contains less than 10 ppm of gluten and is most likely safe for consumers with Celiac or gluten sensitivity
Labeled Not Made with Gluten-Containing Ingredients (or some variety of that phrase): Put it down and walk away. This phrase is not held to the FDA standard of gluten-free. It means exactly what it says: the product is not made with gluten-containing ingredients, but also the manufacturer doesn’t have the confidence necessary to put the label gluten-free so it may or may not test below the 20 ppm threshold
No label at all: This is where common sense kicks in. The FDA designated gluten-free as a completely voluntary label so you may see it popping up on anything from bottled water to diced peaches if the manufacturer thinks it might help the product to sell. However, that also means there are many inherently gluten-free products (canned fruit, frozen vegetables, etc.) that will not have any kind of gluten-free label or logo- because it just isn’t in the best interest of the manufacturer to go through that whole process. Again, this is where you have to decide what is best for you and your body.
I hope this little guide helps you (slightly) in your quest to navigate your new grocery shopping world. I will say that if you are shopping for gluten-free guests, I would recommend choosing certified gluten-free items because it will likely put their minds more at ease. Of course, you can also touch base with them about brands or products that they know are safe for them. (I’ll have a future post about hosting gluten-free guests)
Last but not least, if you do have an adverse reaction to a product which is labeled gluten-free, the FDA has established two ways to report this information. You can contact FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Adverse Event Reporting System at 240-402-2405 or by email at CAERS@cfsan.fda.gov or you can reach out to an FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator for the state where the food was purchased. You can find the number for your state listed here. We have to stick together to keep each other safe- if a product makes you sick, you can help prevent it from happening to someone else.
Now, happy (and safe!) shopping! I promise, you’ll get the hang of it 🙂