In the past ten years I’ve seen a lot of changes take place for people who are on a gluten-free diet. Most of it is good. There is more and better information. There are more and better products. Food labeling has improved. More people are discovering they have problems with gluten, and they are healthier on a gluten-free diet. More doctors are aware of the prevalence of celiac disease, and some are even aware of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
On the other hand, there is sometimes more confusion about the gluten-free diet. All kinds of people give all kinds of advice, and some of it is bad advice. Companies are anxious to label their products gluten-free, but sometimes there is cross contamination, making it difficult for a consumer to know whether a product really is gluten free. Companies also place warnings on their products to avoid a law suit, but the warnings often cause confusion or keep people from eating a product that actually is gluten free.
How do we know if a food truly is gluten free?
Determining a Safe Level of Gluten
There is a proposed FDA standard (which has not been approved) to set the limit for the amount of gluten allowed in products labeled as gluten free at less than 20 parts per million (ppm). Now some of you might ask, “If it’s gluten free, shouldn’t it be 0 ppm?” That would certainly be ideal, but the fact of the matter is that for processed foods, that’s just not realistic. There is too much gluten in our world for that to happen. Keep in mind I’m talking about processed foods. Things like fresh fruit and vegetables should be completely gluten free after being washed. But even gluten free grains are at risk for cross contamination due to growing, harvesting, and packaging. According to an article in the current issue of Gluten-Free Living magazine, rice, amaranth, and quinoa have the lowest risk of cross contamination. You can read more about and see results of a pilot study on the Gluten-Free Living blog.
For more information regarding the gluten-free labeling proposed rule, you can visit the Food & Drug Administrations questions & answers page. In regard to the 20 ppm criteria the site states,
The level is proposed based on the available analytic methods. Data from peer-reviewed scientific literature demonstrate that current analytic technology can reliably and consistently detect gluten in wheat, rye, and barley at levels of 20 ppm in a variety of food matrices.
What concerns me about that statement is that there is no mention of what is safe for people who need to be on a gluten-free diet. At one time the safe limit was considered to be 200 ppm, and we now know that was way too high. Many people, myself included, believe that 20 ppm is too high also. It may not be scientific, but when numerous people react to products that are tested to 20 ppm, it says something to me.
My Personal Experience
I am not as sensitive to gluten as I used to be, but for years I was very sensitive. It was always frustrating to hear people say that people’s reactions aren’t always due to gluten. It’s true that people do react to other types of food, and every negative response our body has is not necessarily due to gluten. But, I have certain reactions such as a particular abdominal pain, extreme and very sudden sleepiness, and mental reactions that I only get when I ingest gluten. Of course, ingesting gluten is always accidental for me, and those symptoms can almost always be traced back to a specific source or a risky situation, such a eating at a restaurant. I never get those particular symptoms when I have a stomach virus or other adverse reaction to food. I believe many other people reporting reactions are the same way. They know when they’ve been glutened.
I appreciate companies who make efforts to provide safe food and believe the proposed standard is sufficient. However, I will not eat those products on a regular basis. I’m much more confident in products that participate in a gluten-free certification program, because the standards are usually higher, and because people outside the company are involved in the certification process. GFCO is considered by many to be the best certification program. They certify to less than 10 ppm gluten.
What We Don’t Know
We don’t know how much gluten contamination there is for many foods, even some foods that are labeled gluten free. There is also uncertainty about what level of gluten is truly safe, and whether that amount is different for different people. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that you should not base your decision of what is safe on your reactions alone. There are people with celiac disease who have gotten diagnosed because of a family member, but they did not have symptoms, and still do not have symptoms even if they eat a piece of whole wheat bread. Just because I am not as sensitive in my reactions as I used to be does not mean that a small amount of gluten is not causing an autoimmune response. It simply means that I’m no longer reacting with obvious outward symptoms.
All this makes it difficult to know what is safe to eat, especially if you or your child does not react easily. Many people with celiac disease monitor how well they are doing by having antibody blood tests done on a regular basis, such as yearly. That can certainly be a helpful indicator, but whether it’s sufficient is a personal decision. There is just no clear cut way to test for whether you are having a reaction to gluten after eating a particular food that likely has cross contamination.
At Home Testing
If you are interested, EZ Gluten sells test strips for detecting gluten in food samples. It claims to be 99% accurate and tests to 10 ppm. You can order different amounts of test strips ranging in cost from $12.50 – $10.50 per test.
The bottom line is that if you are eating any processed food, you are likely getting some amount of gluten in your diet. Remember that processed can even refer to a basic grain. For example, even though I mill many of my own flours, it does not guarantee that the flour is 100% gluten free due to cross contamination of grains. For that reason as well as others, we’re better off eating fewer grains and less processed foods and instead eating more fruits and vegetables. I do love baking and eating baked goods, though, and I will continue to do it. For me the key is moderation and making what I believe to be the safest choices.
Note: My thanks to Shirley of gluten free easily for helping me to edit and clarify the information in this post.