New Standards for Gluten-Free Foods
BY STEPHANIE LOUGH
Gluten-free diets have gained a lot of attention in the past year and, like any diet fad, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to tell what is healthy, and who is trying to get a piece of the $1.56 billion and growing market. New certification programs are now setting the industry standard for gluten-free products to help consumers make educated choices.
If you have gone out to eat, visited a grocery store or frequented a foodie blog lately, you probably have come across the buzzword “gluten-free.” Gluten-free restaurants are popping up virtually overnight. Menus are expanding to include special gluten-free dishes. Foods that never had gluten to start with now boast their message on their labels. Like many health crazes, the success of a gluten-free lifestyle is largely based on disciplined dietary principles and consumers’ need to feel safe when they purchase products claiming to be “gluten-free.” Unfortunately it’s not always the case.
So what’s a gluten-conscious consumer to do? Special interest groups are helping to protect the customer by offering gluten-free certification programs to food manufacturing and processing companies.
GUIDE TO GLUTEN
Gluten is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin that is found in both natural and processed foods, including wheat and similar grains. It is also used as an additive in some food manufacturing processes to create desired texture. Currently, manufacturers are not required to list gluten on their labels, nor are there regulations on what qualifies a product to be gluten-free, resulting in various, and possibly dangerous, amounts ingested. Typically, if food is made with wheat or wheat product -like flour, it contains gluten. While some foods, like bread and pasta, can be obvious sources of wheat, gluten can be found in not-so-obvious products like ice cream and most condiments.
Eating is not the only way we consume gluten. Other hidden sources of gluten include sunscreens, cosmetics, and even the powder dusted inside latex gloves.
Most people can tolerate gluten, granted they eat healthy and avoid too many processed foods. But for about 1 percent of the population, a gluten-free diet is critical to their life.
THE 1 PERCENT
The most common reason people choose to live a gluten-free lifestyle is because they have celiac disease (CD), an inherited autoimmune condition in which gluten converts into a toxin that damages the small intestine. This can cause an array of digestive problems, including malabsorption, an increased risk of intestinal cancers and other autoimmune diseases, and even premature death if undiagnosed.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one in every 133 people is born with CD. Less than 1percent of the population is affected by CD, yet millions more are adopting a gluten-free diet for a handful of medical reasons other than CD. A 2009 Duke University study linked gluten-free diets to the decrease of symptoms in schizophrenia patients, although the correlation is not yet clear. Still, these numbers are very small compared to the number of gluten-free dieters in the U.S., which is estimated to be as much as 25 percent of citizens.
This large and growing demographic prompted the FDA to reevaluate some of its regulations, and called for certain standards to be put in place to help the average consumer find quality goods.
SETTING THE STANDARD
A gluten-free certification is designed for consumer food manufacturers to ensure customers that their product is held to strict standards and meets all gluten-free regulations set by the Gluten Free Certification Organization (GFCO), which requires a gluten-free product be less than 10ppm gluten. The FDA plans to release its final updated regulations on gluten-free products at the end of this summer, and it has been suggested that their standard will state that any item with more than 20ppm cannot be considered gluten-free.
In addition, the GFCO has a comprehensive database of certified companies and products, giving them exposure while acting as a resource to the consumer.
The GFCO is a program created by the Gluten Intolerance Group, a 501c3 nonprofit that helps people with gluten sensitivity live healthy lives. They are one of three organizations that currently offer gluten-free certification in the U.S.
To certify, companies must apply and complete a successful audit of the facility conducted by a GFCO inspector, all of whom have several years of experience performing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Compliance, kosher and organic audits. The inspector checks everything from gluten levels to cross-contamination vulnerabilities.
Once they have completed the audit, the company commits to a contractual agreement that subjects its facility and products to gluten testing at random. The number of times a product or site is inspected varies depending on certain factors such as the type of plant, the type of produce, the process used, etc.
Restaurant owners who have gluten-free options need to be guaranteed that a product used in the kitchen is indeed safe for even the most gluten-sensitive customer. Consumers benefit by having confidence that a product has been tested for gluten and the manufacturing site inspected. Manufacturers receive the benefit of credibility and recognition in the gluten-free community.
Until the FDA activates its updated regulations, there are things you can do to ensure you are minimizing the amount of gluten in your diet.
• Research some of your favorite foods and see what alterations can be made to make it a gluten-free dish
• Familiarize yourself with common sources of gluten, what foods to avoid
• Ask your server about ingredients before ordering
• Be mindful of ingredients on package food
• Be skeptical of packaging boasting “gluten-free”
• Keep a food diary and record what foods don’t make you feel well
The good news is, diet fad or not, there are more gluten-free alternatives for those with CD. There are countless blogs devoted to CD and other gluten-sensitive issues, providing a strong support network for gluten-free individuals.
Cookbooks – The Healthy Gluten-Free Life by Tammy Credicott
Lifestyle – Celiac Disease and Living Gluten-Free: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed by Jules E. Dowler Shepard
For kids – Eat Like a Dinosaur: Recipe & Guidebook for Gluten-free Kids by Paleo Parents