September 5, 2012

Gluten-Free Certification: Who or What Certifies Food and Drinks as Gluten-Free?

By Evan Sandsmark -  

How do you know if something is gluten-free? Generally, you look at the label to see if there is some sort of gluten-free certification printed on it, some emblem or text that indicates that your food or drink has been approved as gluten-free. But then another question arises: who or what certifies products as gluten-free? Where do gluten-free certifications come from – whence are they issued? Moreover, what does it mean to say that something is certified gluten-free? Who decides what is gluten-free enough? Must a product have no gluten to be gluten-free, or can it merely have very small amounts? Below, we attempt to untangle these questions to give you a better idea of what the somewhat complicated world of gluten-free certification is all about, and how you can tell that what you consume is gluten-free. With three million people in the U.S. suffering from celiac disease and another 17 million with a gluten sensitivity, this is pressing matter.

We were prompted to investigate this issue when writing about where to find gluten-free beer in Boulder. In the course of writing that article, we tried a beer called New Grist, made by the Milwaukee-based Lakefront Brewery. The company claims that New Grist was the first beer certified as gluten-free by the U.S. Government. However, as far as our research has revealed, there is no government agency that certifies products as gluten-free.

In fact, the government can’t even seem to determine what gluten-free means. As of this writing, the Food and Drug Administration has still not arrived at a definition of “gluten-free.” In 2004, Congress said that the FDA must establish what it means for a product to be gluten-free by 2008. In January of 2007, the FDA proposed a definition, one that stipulated that a product can only be called gluten-free if it does not contain any of the following:

(1) an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains
(2) an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten
(3) an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten
(4) 20 ppm or more gluten

(These criteria are taken verbatim from the FDA’s website.)

After this definition was released, there was a “public comment period” wherein consumers and members of the food industry (or any other “interested parties”) could provide feedback on the definition. For whatever reason, over four years later, in August of last year, this comment period was reopened for 60 days, at which time the FDA published both a press release and a “Consumer Update” to announce this development.

The FDA stands by the definition proposed in 2007. The proposal is consistent with the guidelines set forth in 2008 by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which decided at this time that foods with less than 20 ppm gluten could be labeled gluten-free. (This is a very small amount of gluten: if a product has more than .0007 of an ounce of gluten per 2.2 pounds, then it can’t be labeled gluten-free. Even so, some countries have even stricter standards, like Australia and New Zealand, which require that foods labeled as gluten-free can have no amount of gluten that can be detected by the most sensitive commercial testing equipment. Presently, such equipment can detect gluten levels around 3 ppm.) The standard established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission has been adopted by the 27 countries that make up the Commission of European Communities. After the comment period was reopened last year, however, no official statements regarding the definition of “gluten-free” have been released by the FDA.

So, as of now, the federal government not only can’t certify products as gluten-free, it can’t even say whether a product is gluten-free. However, there are two independent bodies that will certify products as gluten-free. One body was formed relatively recently when the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness partnered with Quality Assurance International. Together, these groups operate a “credible, verified and science-based gluten-free certification program.” To be certified and earn the “this product is certified gluten-free” seal, a product must undergo strict reviews to determine that it contains 10 ppm gluten or less. Moreover, products are subject to random testing and manufacturing sites must be inspected.

Before the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness partnered with Quality Assurance International to certify products, there was only independent group in the world that performed the same function: The Gluten-Free Certification Organization. This organization, like the joint NFCA-QAI operation, inspects facilities in which gluten-free products are produced and randomly tests products, and it also requires products to contain 10 ppm gluten or less to be certified as gluten-free. If a product is certified by either of these groups, you can rest assured that it has undergone rigorous testing.

As small as 20 or 10 ppm gluten may seem, this amount can actually still cause adverse reactions in people with the severest gluten sensitivities. For these people, the debate surrounding what constitutes “gluten-free”
is to an extent irrelevant – if a food isn’t naturally gluten-free, then they probably can’t eat it. However, for many people with celiac disease, a gluten level around 20 ppm will not cause any health problems, and the sooner the FDA officially releases a definition, the easier it will be for food manufacturers to produce and market their goods to those who depend on them. Producers will know exactly what amount of gluten a product can contain to advertise it as gluten-free, and consumers will know exactly what they are getting.

Of course, it is not as if there is currently no guidance or regulation when it comes to gluten-free products. For instance, there is a law (Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act) that stipulates that any product that contains wheat must have this printed on its label, and the FDA enforces this rule. This law has made gluten-free shopping immensely easier. Moreover, people can get in big trouble for passing gluten-containing food off as gluten-free, as when a man in North Carolina was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year for buying regular bread and relabeling it gluten-free. Still, there needs to be a clear, accepted definition of “gluten-free” that all concerned people are aware of, and hopefully the FDA will make this happen soon.

Read Next Article » Ozo Coffee of Boulder has an Admirably Large Selection of Gluten-Free Snacks
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