What does it mean when you look at a label stating a food is "gluten-free"? Unfortunately, it doesn't mean the food has absolutely no gluten in it. In fact, many foods sporting a "gluten-free" label contain some gluten, and there's currently no U.S. government regulation or enforcement of gluten-free labeling.
So What Is Gluten-Free, Anyway?
In August 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized regulations that would define the term "gluten-free" so that food product manufacturers could use the term when their products contained less than 20 parts per million of gluten, or ppm.
The FDA chose 20 parts per million, or ppm, as the standard based on research showing that many celiacs, but not all, could consume foods with less than 20ppm of gluten as part of a standard diet without having major symptoms or incurring renewed villous atrophy. The agency also noted that testing can reliably detect gluten in food products at concentrations of 20ppm.
Gluten-Free Food Labeling Voluntary
Manufacturers are not be required to place a gluten-free label on a food product, even if it met the FDA's "gluten-free" standards. Therefore, companies that provide gluten-free labeling on products are doing so to court business from people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
The FDA reported in mid-2013 that the vast majority of manufacturers who label products "gluten-free" adhere to the 20ppm standard. In addition, some manufacturers, especially specialty gluten-free product makers, adhere to stricter standards as part of a gluten-free certification program.
Australia, New Zealand Offer Strictest Gluten-Free Labeling Standards
Gluten-free labeling standards differ from country to country.
In Europe, manufacturers follow rules promulgated by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which in 2008 called for reducing the gluten-free standard from 200ppm to 20ppm. In Canada, foods also must meet a 20ppm standard. (Learn more: Canada's Gluten-Free Labeling Rules)
Australia and New Zealand together have the strictest gluten-free standard in the world. To qualify for gluten-free labeling, a food must have no detectable gluten in it under the most sensitive commercial testing available, which currently can detect gluten at about 3ppm. Interestingly, a New Zealand contact tells me, when those strict regulations took effect, many celiacs reported vastly improved health, even if they hadn't particularly noticed symptoms before.
Gluten Still Possible In Foods With Gluten-Free Label
Despite the potential standards in the U.S., plus efforts from specialty manufacturers to eliminate more gluten from their products, it's still quite possible to get glutened from products marked gluten-free, especially if their levels of gluten hover right around that 20ppm proposed standard.
Current testing technology can detect gluten down to about 3ppm, and some specialty manufacturers produce products with less than 5ppm of gluten in them. However, if you're sensitive to lower levels of gluten, you may react to products tested to have less than 5ppm of gluten in them.
If you're eating only products marked "gluten-free" and you're still having reactions, consider following the tips I've outlined in this article on getting glutened from gluten-free food.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. What Is Gluten-Free? FDA Has An Answer. Accessed Aug. 5, 2013.