| USWorld

Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

FDA finally defines 'gluten-free'

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

Daily Photo Galleries

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By The Washington Post
Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 8:09 p.m.

It took a little longer than the construction of the Lincoln Memorial, but the Food and Drug Administration on Friday morning finalized its definition of what it takes for food to qualify as “gluten-free.”

The official government designation occurred nine years after Congress asked the agency to establish a standard for companies wanting to label their products as gluten-free and five years after the deadline set by lawmakers.

In the interim, a growing number of manufacturers have leaped into the lucrative and exploding market for foods without gluten, a protein found in barley, wheat and rye. While several independent organizations certify products as gluten-free, until Friday, there was no government standard for what it takes to earn that label, meaning that foods marketed as gluten-free contained varying amounts of the protein.

At the same time, an increasing number of Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition in which consuming gluten can damage the lining of the small intestine and contribute to a range of health issues, from gastrointestinal problems to increased risk for osteoporosis, infertility, miscarriages and certain types of cancer.

About 3 million Americans, or about 1 in 133, suffer from celiac disease, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. An estimated 18 million are “gluten-sensitive,” meaning exposure to the protein can cause symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and joint pain.

The rule published Friday by the FDA says that in order for a product to be marketed as “gluten-free,” it must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. It also requires that any foods labeled “free of gluten,” “without gluten” and “no gluten” meet the same standard.

The agency said that while many foods currently being marketed as gluten-free already meet the new federal guidelines, manufacturers will have a year to comply.

“Adherence to a gluten-free diet is the key to treating celiac disease, which can be very disruptive to everyday life,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in a statement. “The FDA's new ‘gluten-free' definition will help people with this condition make food choices with confidence and allow them to better manage their health.”

Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the FDA took an “excruciating” amount of time to finalize its gluten-free definition in part because it had to consider the polarized positions of activists who wanted more stringent standards and industry officials who wanted more lenient requirements. In the end, he said, the agency ended up striking the right balance.

“They made a decision that was based on scientific evidence,” he said, adding that it was a ruling that finally will give celiac sufferers peace of mind in restaurants and grocery store aisles.

“Now, they don't have to stress out,” Fasano said. “Now, they know there are rules, that there are parameters. It's a big deal.”

Congress directed the FDA to set guidelines for the use of the term “gluten-free” when it passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. The agency organized a public meeting on the topic the next year and solicited input from a wide range of interested parties, including medical professionals, food manufacturers and millers.

The FDA published a proposed rule in 2007 but continued to study the matter for years, saying it demanded careful consideration and technical analysis, such as determining how accurately manufacturers could test gluten levels in their products. The agency asked for another round of public comment in 2011 and finally sent its proposal to the White House earlier this year for final review.

While the U.S. government tried to settle on a definition of gluten-free, other countries, such as Australia and Canada, along with the Europe-based Codex Alimentarius Commission, have each set labeling standards of their own. Those standards generally are in line with the 20 parts per million set Friday by the FDA.

In recent years, more and more consumers have begun buying gluten-free versions of breads, pastas, cereals and other staples, as well as gluten-free beer and wine.

The research firm Packaged Facts reported last year that the market for gluten-free products has grown more than expected, reaching $4.2 billion. “The conviction that gluten-free products are generally healthier is the top motivation for consumers of these products,” the firm said in its report, which projected that U.S. sales of gluten-free foods and beverages would cross $6.6 billion by 2017.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy

Most-Read Nation

  1. Police try to see if man killed by escort was linked to crimes against women
  2. Nuke arms program gets 4-star leadership
  3. National Security Agency to stop looking at old telephone records
  4. El Niño helps, harms economies
  5. Oklahoma court: Ten Commandments monument at Capitol must go
  6. Boy Scouts of America votes to end controversial ban on openly gay leaders
  7. House Benghazi panel says State Department to hand over documents Tuesday
  8. Republicans seek firing of IRS chief in feud over missing emails
  9. House, Senate clash over highway funds before Friday deadline
  10. Outside attorneys to help investigate Bland death in Texas jail
  11. Lawyers: Immigrant mothers coerced to wear ankle monitors in Texas