Defining What is Really Gluten-Free

The label may not be completely accurate, and LynnRae Ries tells us what to look out for.



Gluten-free labels are showing up on everything from fruits to packaged foods and restaurant menus, but they are not all necessarily true. On August 5, 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a compliance ruling for labeling foods as “gluten-free” that they are naturally gluten-free (an apple); inherently gluten-free (buckwheat) and have not been in cross-contact with wheat/gluten-containing ingredients; or measure below 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten content.

The FDA intent of the regulatory definition of gluten-free aims to limit consumer confusion when reading ingredient lists. While it’s easy to understand how an apple is gluten-free, cross-contact can occur in a farmer’s field, on shared equipment, in storage bins and silos, during processing and transportation, in packaging rooms, through ventilation systems or in the kitchen.

To people with celiac disease, high intolerance or severe allergy to gluten (wheat), the quantity is of utmost importance. Visualize a piece of bread. Now cut it into 1 million pieces. Only fewer than 20 of those pieces can contain gluten. This rule applies to packaged foods, dietary supplements and imported foods, but not foods regulated by the USDA or TTB (meats, poultry, certain egg products and alcoholic beverages). The FDA has also encouraged the restaurant industry to move ahead with its own gluten-free procedures and policies. According to the FDA, “The goal of manufacturing any food labeled gluten-free should be for the food to not contain any gluten or to contain the lowest amount possible that is less than 20 ppm gluten.”

Every step forward in the identifying and regulation of foods that cause unhealthy medical conditions for an individual is welcomed and well received, yet this ruling is still new and meets many challenges. Food providers, processors and manufacturers unaware of it do not test, verify ingredient sources or establish good manufacturing processes (GMP). The cost of testing may restrict businesses from verifying the 20 ppm standard. The FDA does not require manufacturers to test or maintain testing logs or records to substantiate gluten-free claims. Enforcement often occurs through consumers reporting a company’s noncompliance.

Steps to determine if a food is gluten-free.

  • Look for “gluten-free” statement on the package (not required by FDA).
  • Check the allergen statement. Even though gluten is not one of the top eight food allergens, the term “wheat” may appear.
  • Read all the ingredients.
  • Identify where and how the item was packaged. If in a wheat facility, look for the GMP label or testing procedures.
  • Call the manufacturer if uncertain and inquire on testing or processing procedures.

LynnRae Ries is a certified holistic health coach, plant-based chef, author and founder of Gluten Free Creations Bakery.

Edit ModuleShow Tags