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What Does Gluten-Free Mean?

Updated on October 16, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


Until August 2, 2013 there were no federal standards or definitions for the food industry to use in labeling products "gluten-free." But now there is, and here it is:

Less than 20 parts per million (ppm) is the number that FDA has established as the standard that foods must meet in order to earn the label “gluten-free.”

That limit also applies to foods labeled “free of gluten,” “no gluten,” and “without gluten.”

It’s not just an arbitrary number. Using state-of-the-art analytical equipment, 20 ppm is the lowest concentration of gluten that can consistently be detected.

It’s also in concert with the level established by international regulating authorities and regulators in other countries.

The 20 ppm limit shouldn't pose a problem because most people with celiac disease can tolerate very small amounts of gluten in their food.

THE GREEN LINE IS GLUTEN in this chart of the FDA's five fastest growing health and nutrition-related claims on new food products from 2001 to 2010.
THE GREEN LINE IS GLUTEN in this chart of the FDA's five fastest growing health and nutrition-related claims on new food products from 2001 to 2010. | Source

BUT WAIT...there's more!

There are three other conditions that can prevent a food from earning the title "gluten free." Manufacturers will not be allowed to use the "gluten-free" designation as long as the food contains:

  • wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains
  • an ingredient that is derived from these grains but has not been processed to remove gluten
  • an ingredient that is derived from these grains, that has been processed to remove gluten, but that still results in the food containing gluten at a concentration of 20 or more (ppm).

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is simply the proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains.

There are approximately 3 million people in the U.S. who suffer from celiac disease, and to those individuals gluten can mean potentially life-threatening illnesses.

Avoiding gluten is no easy task, either, as it's found in many foods, most notably baked goods, cereals, and pastas.

What Is Celiac Disease?

For folks with celiac disease, their body's natural defense system reacts to gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine.

If the lining of the intestine isn’t healthy, the body simply can’t absorb the nutrients it needs.

As a result, conditions such as anemia, osteoporosis, diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease and intestinal cancers can develop.

Manufacturers were given a deadline of August 5, 2014 (one year from the date the regulation was published in the Federal Register) to bring their labels into compliance.

It doesn’t seem as if that would be a Herculean task since only an estimated 5 percent of the foods now labeled “gluten-free” contain in excess of 20 ppm of gluten.

There is a lot of literature, in hard copy, or online, that is helpful to the folks with Celiac disease. Books like "Living Gluten-Free for Dummies" are generally reliable while some web sites may not be. I look for web sites that end in dot-edu, dot-gov, and, in come cases, dot-org.

The very best information, though, will likely come from the professionals one would consult, such as physicians, immunologists, and dietitians.

© 2013 Bob Bamberg


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      It seems as if a lot of people are Celiac, Lynda, and it's a tough disease. A co-worker...probably in her early 40's I'd guess...was diagnosed a couple of years ago. Shopping, for her, is an art and she does a lot of her own baking now. I do a few hours a week cashiering at a supermarket and see a ton of gluten free products moving down my belt. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • craiglyn profile image

      Lynda 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      A very interesting hub for me as my granddaughter is Celiac. We almost lost her at the age of 18 months or so, before we got her diagnosed. She cannot tolerate any bit of gluten in a product - it would make her sick, and thankfully she has been made aware since a small child of things she cannot eat. We are in Canada - but I imagine the labelling follows the same standards. I know that a lot has changed in the 23 years since that time in that restaurants are now aware of this problem too and offer "gluten free menus" and there are many specialty stores around in which to shop for more interesting things than was initially offered. Thanks for this interesting read. Lynda (Craiglyn) :)