I started writing about gluten and I found I had a REALLY hard time stopping. Therefore, this has become part 1 of a 3-part series of posts all about gluten. When you see how lengthy this first post is, I think you'll understand!
There are many different reasons why people choose to follow a gluten-free diet. Before we discuss them, let’s talk about exactly what gluten is, and what it means when you see the words “gluten-free” on a food label.
What the heck is a Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other members of the wheat family. It’s actually made up of two proteins: glutenin and gliadin (this one is the troublemaker for those who are allergic to gluten, but more on that below). Glutenin and gliadin are a dream team for creating fluffy baked goods that hold their shape. Glutenin strands create a solid structure for holding air bubbles and gliadin is like a firm yet stretchy cement that holds it all together. This is why gluten-containing grains are pretty ideal for creating baked goods; you get a product that is soft and springy but doesn’t crumble to bits when you take a bite out of it.
Labeling Requirements for Gluten and other Allergens
So what does is mean when you see the words “gluten-free” on a label? If it doesn’t have wheat in the ingredients- it’s gluten-free right? If there’s one simple idea to remember about food labeling, it’s that it’s never that simple. The first trick is that there are many different varieties of wheat, so wheat could show up as a lot of different things on an ingredient list. The second trick is that close relatives of wheat like barley and rye also contain gluten. Here is a list of names for gluten-containing grains (some are types of wheat, some are closely-related members of the wheat family):
If a product contains some variety of wheat in it that is not described as “wheat” in the ingredients, the FDA requires that it is stated under the label. You may have seen this for other potential allergens as well, such as nuts or dairy.
This is from a Theo Chocolate Bar that has long since been eaten (Jealous? You should be!). You can see the Allergen Statement in bold below the ingredients.
The third trick to gluten-free labeling is that non-gluten-containing grains are often processed and packaged in facilities where they also process wheat. This means that they can become cross-contaminated with gluten, which is a problem for those who have a gluten allergy. Currently the FDA does not require food manufacturers to place a warning on the label when foods are processed on shared equipment with allergens. You may see a warning below the ingredient list, but this is a voluntary statement. Smart food manufacturers often do place a shared equipment warning on their label, because they generally don’t have an interest in someone going into anaphylactic shock after consuming their food. Here’s the guideline direct from the FDA:
FALCPA's labeling requirements do not apply to major food allergens that are unintentionally added to a food as the result of cross-contact. In the context of food allergens, "cross-contact" occurs when a residue or other trace amount of an allergenic food is unintentionally incorporated into another food that is not intended to contain that allergenic food.
FALCPA stands for the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, the last major piece of legislation passed on this subject. This discussion has quickly grown longer than I wanted it to, but here’s the final piece: what exactly does it mean when you see the words “gluten-free” on a label?
Here you can see the shared equipment warning below the ingredients.
The FDA is currently in the process of defining a legal definition for gluten-free, which means that there is no current standard. Generally companies will list their product as gluten-free when there is no gluten in the ingredients, and the products were not manufactured on shared equipment with gluten.
There are some foods that are certified gluten-free by non-governmental agencies, such as the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). These certifications require higher standards than those of the FDA.
This stamp from the Gluten Intolerance Group is currently the best way to spot a thoroughly gluten-free product.