If a food sold in Canada contains gluten, it must say so explicitly on the label.
That's the bottom line for labeling rules from governmental agency Health Canada that took effect in August 2012. Unlike the United States, where food labeling laws do not require disclosure of gluten ingredients, Canada considers gluten to be a major allergen, and therefore, food manufacturers must tell consumers if they've used gluten-containing ingredients.
The new labeling rules also spell out the definition of "gluten-free" for both consumers and food manufacturers to mean less than 20 parts per million of gluten, or 20ppm for short. Foods specifically labeled "gluten-free" must meet these standards.
Worry or Not Worry?
With these regulations, gluten-free consumers in Canada don't need to worry about manufacturers hiding gluten-containing ingredients behind incomprehensible-sounding ingredients. They also don't need to worry about gluten-containing wax on pre-packaged fruits or vegetables.
However, gluten-free Canadians still need to worry about gluten in beer (the new regulations exempt the beer industry), and gluten-based waxes used on non-pre-packaged fruits and vegetables. If they're particularly sensitive to trace gluten, they also will need to worry about gluten (and wheat-based ingredients) below the accepted "safe" level of 20ppm.
All in all, these regulations are a boon to Canada's gluten-free consumers. In fact, the Canadian Celiac Association lobbied strenuously for 20 years for the changes, and deserves a great deal of credit for their implementation.
Canadian Labels Contain Clearly Marked Gluten Ingredients
When a food sold in Canada contains gluten (in the form of wheat, barley, rye or oats), the gluten ingredient or ingredients must be clearly marked either in the ingredients list itself or in a "CONTAINS:" statement directly below the ingredient list. For example, crackers with wheat flour in the ingredients obviously contain gluten, while a rice milk with the statement "CONTAINS: BARLEY" below the ingredients listing also contains gluten.
Foods also can include the statement "MAY CONTAIN:" as a warning to consumers. These types of statements generally indicate that the product in question has been manufactured on shared equipment or in a shared facility, although they also can indicate gluten cross-contamination of ingredients.
Canadian food producers also are not permitted to use incomprehensible-sounding names like "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" or "HVP" as ways of disguising possibly gluten-containing ingredients instead, the gluten source must be written in "commonly used words" like "wheat."
The Canadian regulations define "gluten" as wheat (including hybrids such as triticale, kamut and spelt), barley, rye and oats. Note that there's some controversy over whether people with celiac disease can consume oats safely see my article Is Oatmeal Gluten-Free? for more information.
In this case, however, oats are included because they're presumed to be cross-contaminated with wheat, not because they're considered dangerous in their pure form to celiacs or to those with gluten sensitivity.
Canadian Regulations Define 'Gluten-Free'
The regulations promulgated by Health Canada also standardize the definition of "gluten-free" for Canadian food manufacturers and consumers. Specifically, foods labeled as "gluten-free" must contain no ingredients with any gluten proteins from prohibited grains; must not contain ingredients with modified or hydrolyzed proteins from those grains that have been added deliberately to the product; and must test at less than the 20ppm standard considered "gluten-free."
These foods can include gluten grain-derived ingredients such as glucose or maltodextrin from wheat, provided that the finished product tests below 20ppm. Although the manufacturers must use testing methods that are effective at picking up fragments of the gluten protein in the finished product, and cannot label the product as "gluten-free" if the testing comes in higher than 20ppm, note that those of us who are more sensitive to trace gluten frequently have trouble with products that contain these wheat-based ingredients.
Fortunately for those of us who avoid wheat-based ingredients entirely, the regulations require the label to specify that any ingredients are wheat-derived, even if the product itself is labeled "gluten-free" and tests below 20ppm.
Regulations Help Food-Allergic Consumers
Many people who eat gluten-free also report other allergies or intolerances for example, milk or sulphites and these new regulations will help them ferret out troublesome foods. The rules cover peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, soy, milk, eggs, fish including crustaceans and shellfish, mustard, wheat and other cereal grains containing gluten, and sulphites.
Health Canada considered adding garlic and onions to the list, but found the evidence for severe allergies was insufficient to warrant their inclusion.
Canadian food product labels must call out ingredients that contain any of these allergens. In addition, wines that use fining agents from eggs, fish or milk must disclose that, and prepackaged fruits and vegetables that include any allergen or gluten in their wax coating must disclose that.
For more information, see Health Canada's Food Allergen Labelling page.