Gluten-free? A new FDA standard protects the health of millions

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While concern about gluten in food is relatively new and may seem like a fad to some, Americans who suffer from celiac disease know that it’s not to be taken lightly. Yet until now, that is exactly how the voluntary labeling of food sold as gluten-free has been taken. The advertising claim was not regulated.

That ended last week, when a new rule by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took effect. From now on foods labeled gluten-free must contain less than 20 parts per million gluten, an amount that research suggests should be negligible. Many manufacturers were already meeting this standard, but now it’s mandatory if they choose to use the gluten-free label.

People with celiac disease — an estimated 3 million in the United States — have one less thing to worry about. Gluten refers to proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and hybrids of these grains, making common food products such as pasta and baked goods highly problematic for sufferers.

For those who have this inherited chronic disorder, foods containing gluten trigger production of antibodies that attack the lining of the small intestine, curbing the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. This can lead to serious health problems, including nutritional deficiencies, osteoporosis, miscarriages and intestinal cancers.

The rule applies to packaged foods that manufacturers voluntarily wish to label as gluten-free. However, the FDA says restaurants that make the claim on menus should follow the same definition.

Government regulation is often criticized as onerous, but here’s a case where millions of people — not only those who have celiac disease but also others who want to avoid gluten as a lifestyle choice — are given peace of mind and manufacturers are given a common standard. No argument: This new rule is a healthy development.

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