By Sam Lewis
Nine years after request, FDA gives official definition to the term
A sigh of relief was let out by millions of Americans suffering from celiac disease, and millions more desiring a gluten-free diet, when the FDA released official rules defining the term “gluten-free.” The definition is nine years in the making, as the FDA has been working on an official definition and rules accompanying food labels reading “gluten-free” since 2004.
Under the new federal definition, any product carrying a label stating it is gluten-free must contain no more than 20 parts per million of gluten. “With the new rule, when consumers see “gluten-free” on a food label, they can be assured that those claims have meaning,” says Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine with the FDA.
For sufferers of celiac disease — an auto-immune disease that doesn’t allow those who have it to digest gluten — labeling is crucial, as there are no treatments for the disease, other than avoiding gluten. The new, definitive standard in labeling significantly drops the risks of health problems for celiac sufferers. All food packaging will be required to follow these rules within in the next year, according to Taylor.
Congress stepped in for the first time in 2004 to create a standard for gluten-free foods and their labels. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act required the FDA to issue standards for labeling on gluten-free foods. This legislation is finally being put into action nine years later, leaving many wondering “what took so long?” Taylor says the FDA was deeply involved in evaluating different standards. “We wanted to do a careful scientific assessment of the data and the range of sensitivities,” says Taylor. The Food Allergen and Consumer Protection Act also required food labels to list any of the top eight allergens — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat — contained in the product. This portion of the legislation took effect in 2006.
While eating gluten-free food is the only treatment for sufferers of celiac disease, many more seek health benefits, specifically weight loss, of a diet lacking gluten. However, many experts advise against eliminating gluten for this purpose. “There is a common misconception that gluten-free diets are ‘healthier’ or for weight loss,” said Dana Angelo White, a nutritionist at Quinnipiac University. “They put themselves unnecessarily at risk for nutrient deficiencies by banishing all gluten from their diet.” She adds, “Any gluten-free products, including a variety of baked goods, are higher in calories than their gluten-free counterparts.”
Despite the risk of nutritional deficiency and increased caloric intake, gluten-free products have gained popularity over the last five years, suggesting a specialty market has been created. Packaged Facts, a publisher of market research in food and beverage, estimates the 2012 gluten-free market to be worth $4.2 billion. The company has also released an estimate for the market value to be worth $6.6 billion by 2017, showing the growth potential for gluten-free products.