Challenges and benefits of gluten-free labeling laws

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Celiac disease, Coeliac disease, Wheat

Allergen labeling has come a long way, but a US study of food labels last month found that ambiguities are still prevalent. FoodNavigator-USA.com examines the current position on gluten-free labeling rules.

Greater awareness of celiac disease – an autoimmune disorder with symptoms triggered by consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and spelt – has led to more people being diagnosed, and the only treatment currently available is complete avoidance of gluten. The introduction of new labeling regulations over the past few years has aimed to make this easier for those with gluten sensitivity.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduced the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) in 2006, which mandates the disclosure of eight food allergens in the ingredient statement: Milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish – but it does not regulate advisory labels.

“Without question, FALCPA has made life better for individuals with celiac disease,” ​says​the American Celiac Disease Alliance. “The improved labeling has brought the added benefit of greater awareness in the marketplace and in restaurants across the country.”

FALCPA was a clear improvement for celiac sufferers. It also proposed that a rule should be set to define 'gluten-free', as it had been unregulated in the US. In 2007, the FDA proposed that gluten should be labeled at anything over 20mg per kg (20ppm). Although this rule has yet to be finalized, many companies are already voluntarily using this standard. But recent research shows that consumers are confused by the wide variety of advisory labels.

Non-regulated advisories

Last month, researchers writing in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology​ found 25 different types of advisory term including ‘may contain’, ‘shared equipment’ and ‘within plant’. Additionally, they found that 65 percent of products listed non-specific terms, such as ‘natural flavors’ and 'spices’, and that 83 percent of those were not linked to any specific ingredients.

“Supermarket product labeling deficiencies and ambiguities are prevalent,” ​they wrote. “Allergists must continue to educate their patients about these problems, which could be addressed by strict enforcement of labeling laws as well as additional regulation.”

Stricter regulation could include labeling lower levels of gluten – The Celiac Sprue Association has said it would like to see labeling of the smallest measurable amounts of gluten, which it claims are as low as 3ppm, in order to minimize risk of exposure for the most sensitive celiac sufferers.

Others, however, including the Codex Commission, say that at present 20ppm is as low as can be reasonably required of manufacturers.

European regulation

In Europe, the Codex Commission approved 20ppm as an accepted threshold for gluten in 'gluten-free' products last year, in the first update to guidelines since 1983. The limit was hugely cut from 200ppm to 20ppm – and it claims this level is considered to pose no risk to celiac sufferers. It said that the reason for the change is that low levels are more easily attainable than 25 years ago due to technological advances allowing for more accurate detection of minute gluten traces.

The US government estimates that around one in 133 people in the country suffer from celiac disease, yet only around 40,000 to 60,000 Americans have been diagnosed. In Europe, it is estimated that celiac disease affects an average of one in 300 people, one in 200 in Germany and one in 100 in the UK.

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