Is "Gluten-Free" Food Really Gluten-Free?

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Is "Gluten-Free" Food Really Gluten-Free?

If you have been recently diagnosed with Celiac Disease, the previously ho-hum task of eating can suddenly feel like a dangerous undertaking.  For many people recently diagnosed with CD or gluten-sensitivity, those first few post-diagnosis meals will exist of raw carrots and little else.  However, upon your first visit to your local health food store you will find that these days, the shelves are packed full of breads, muffins, crackers, cookies, bagels, and even beer, catered just to you – the gluten-free consumer.  But are these foods actually healthy to eat?  And more importantly, are they completely devoid of gluten?

Until very recently, there has been no official standard that companies need to comply with in order to label their products “gluten-free”.  There also has not been any regulated language to differentiate the claims “gluten-free”, “contains no gluten ingredients”, “made without gluten”, etc.  In August of 2013 the Food and Drug Administration (finally!) adopted official regulations around the use of these terms.  Under the new regulations, any product labeled “gluten-free” must contain less than 20 ppm of gluten.  Hooray!  The bad news is that these new labeling laws do not technically go into effect until August 2014.  Until that time, consumers will have to continue to educate themselves about the nuances of gluten labeling.

Currently, the best guarantee that the consumer has to ensure that products are gluten free is to check for a “Certified Gluten-Free” label.  There are three different independent bodies that are doling out gluten-free certification: the Gluten Intolerance Group, the Celiac Sprue Association, and the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.  While each of these organizations has slightly different criteria for GF labeling, they all ensure that manufacturers are adhering to strict protocol to ensure that their products truly are free of gluten.  All of these organizations require that manufacturers carry out regular testing to ensure that their products are not contaminated with gluten.  These organizations’ guidelines are also stricter than the new FDA regulation – anything over 10 ppm will not receive a certified gluten-free label.

Another question to consider is, if a product has less than 20 ppm of gluten, is it safe for me to consume?  This 20 ppm criterion was born out of research that indicates that people with Celiac Disease do not respond to foods with less than 20 ppm of gluten.  However, keep in mind that some people with CD who are extremely sensitive to gluten may in fact respond to even this miniscule amount in foods.  Also, consider that if you eat GF cereal for breakfast, a few slices of GF bread during the day, plus several GF crackers or cookies, plus GF pasta (you get the picture), you may, at the end of the day, be consuming more than 20 ppm of gluten.

Furthermore, a recent review found the R5 ELISA assay to often be inaccurate when testing for the amount of gluten in beer.  This assay is currently considered to be the industry standard and it is the assay used by all makers of GF beer.

The other consideration is, just because these products are gluten-free, does that mean they are healthy?  Unfortunately, the answer can be no.  Many gluten-free products are made with refined flours and, while they may not contain gluten, they also do not contain many nutrients.  This spells bad news for the recently diagnosed Celiac patient.  CD causes a number of nutrient deficiencies, and it can be difficult to completely heal the digestive tract if these nutrients are not regained through the diet.  These flours may also be very high-glycemic, and therefore may promote blood sugar imbalances and excessive inflammation.  So while these alternative foods can be a God-send in terms of making the GF transition easier, they should not be consistently relied on as staples in the diet. is your best resource for learning about what to eat on a gluten-free diet.  All of the meal plans are designed by nutrition professionals to ensure that they are nutrient-dense and contain balanced proportions of protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrates.  Gluten-free alternative foods are used to add variety, but they are not mainstays in GFP meal plans. The focus is on whole foods that have always been gluten free: vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, nuts and seeds, and gluten free whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa. These are not just the best foods for people with Celiac – they are the best foods for every body! Better yet, these meals are appealing both to the palate and the eye.  They are the quickest path to health after a CD diagnosis.

Navigating the world of “gluten-free” foods is still a tricky task.  Educating yourself about gluten-free labeling, gluten-free certification, and a whole foods, gluten-free diet is your best tool for making decisions that will positively affect your health.  While all of this information can seem overwhelming, offers invaluable information to make the transition seem a lot more workable.