Today I would like to address the issue of cross contamination and how that might show up on a label.
Many people who have problems with gluten, whether because of celiac disease or something else, react to very small amounts of gluten. Even though the ingredients used in a food are gluten free, that does not mean that the product is free of gluten. Cross contamination can cause a food to have unsafe levels of gluten.
Cross contamination can result from individual ingredients being contaminated, often before they get to the manufacturer of the food product. Sometimes companies will not say that their product is gluten free because they cannot verify that the ingredients coming from outside suppliers are gluten free.
Cross contamination can result from the processing of the food, including it’s various stages.
2. Label Warning Statements
Manufacturers are not required to put statements on labels regarding cross contamination. Many companies do so voluntarily, usually with regard to the top eight allergens. However, there is no standard for what those statements mean.
The two most common types of statements are something like, “manufactured in a facility that processes….” or “manufactured on equipment that processes….”
You might think that something processed on the same equipment as wheat is likely to have more cross contamination than something processed in the same facility as products containing wheat. That’s not necessarily true.
Being processed in the same facility as wheat could mean that it is also processed on the same equipment. Remember, there are no regulations.
In addition, some products may be more likely to cause cross contamination than others. A facility that has flour (or other fine, dry ingredient) flying around is likely to have a high degree of contamination, even if processed on separate equipment. Wetter products may keep the gluten more contained and make it easier to clean equipment. Therefore, the risk of contamination could depend on the type of gluten containing products that are being processed. This, however, is purely my own speculation.
You can watch this Kinnikinnick video on the importance of dedicated gluten-free facilities and equipment to see just how difficult it is to clean equipment.
3. How I Use Warning Statements
If a product states that it is processed in the same facility or on the same equipment as products containing wheat, I don’t buy it, unless it has been certified and tested to less than 10 parts per million.
If a warning statement does not include wheat, I generally assume that it was not produced with wheat containing products. It is possible that wheat was simply not listed, but since they are going to the trouble to put the warning statement on the label, I figure they would likely include wheat if it was there. That’s my thinking, but you have to make your own decision on that.
An example would be nuts. Many nuts (particularly store brands) have warning statements that include wheat. Some have warning statements that include peanuts and tree nuts, but not wheat. I go with the one that has a statement but doesn’t include wheat.
When in doubt, call. Warning statements can mean different things and so can no warning statement at all. There is usually a phone number on the package, and companies are now used to dealing with questions about gluten.
5. The Importance of Gluten-Free Labeling
This whole series on labeling underscores the importance of having gluten-free labeling regulations.
Jules of Jules Gluten Free and John Forberger founded 1in133.org to draw attention to the FDA’s inaction in finalizing standards for gluten-free labeling. You can help support their efforts by signing the petition and/or donating.
Jules commented on part 2 of this series. Her entire comment is worth reading, and in her comment she states,
“SO, the real problem we face reading labels is that there is no provision for testing amounts of gluten to determine if “gluten-free” can be put on the label. Thus, we have a situation where a manufacturer looks at its product, says to himself, “I didn’t put any gluten into the product as an ingredient, so I’m going to label it Gluten Free,” when he has no idea if it’s been contaminated. Consumers then see the “GF” designation and stop reading. Since contamination has the potential to render a product quite full of gluten, consumers are left in the dark about true food product safety – the real risk coming from with cross-contamination, not because ingredients are included on a label.”
While reading labels is much easier than it was years ago, we still have a ways to go. Remember to be diligent and always read labels!