These days, you don’t have to go too far to find gluten-free cookies, bagels, pasta or even a wedding cake free of the stuff. But until now, there was no guarantee that your purchases did not contain some level of gluten. Thanks to new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, consumers can rest assured that products labeled gluten free are true to their advertising.
The new regulations, released on Friday, mandate that in order to qualify as gluten-free, food must contain no more than 20 parts per million of gluten. This trace amount is so small that it is unlikely to cause health problems in people who need to be gluten free. Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, acts as a binding agent and helps contribute to baked goods’ elasticity and chewiness.
The new standard is particularly reassuring news for the estimated 3 million Americans with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that makes people intolerant to gluten. Even minimal amounts of gluten trigger an inflammatory response in the digestive tracts of people with celiac disease, severely damaging the intestinal walls. This damage can be asymptomatic, but commonly results in symptoms such as diarrhea, excessive flatulence and weight loss, and can lead to serious anemia, vitamin deficiencies and even certain types of gastrointestinal cancers. Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is a completely gluten-free diet – no cheating allowed.
Awareness of celiac disease has skyrocketed in recent years, and the gluten-free food market has gone with it. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, nearly 1 in 133 Americans suffers from the disease, and 83% of Americans who have it are undiagnosed. The gluten-free food market has grown dramatically to over $4.2 billion a year, and is projected to top $6 billion a year by 2018. Even Dunkin’ Donuts is planning to start selling gluten-free donuts and muffins this year.
But it’s not just people with celiac disease who have jumped on the gluten-free wagon. Some have suggested that going gluten free is a good way to increase energy, lose weight or even improve skin. However, others argue that gluten free is simply the latest diet craze. So far, studies have not shown significant health benefits or weight loss for healthy people who go gluten free.
Throwing away all your whole-grain breads and adopting a gluten-free diet may not be the best decision for people without celiac disease. Some studies have shown that gluten-free diets are often low in fiber and vitamins and can lead to calcium, iron and vitamin B12 deficiencies, among others. Plus, if gluten is replaced with too many other fats or processed foods, the diet can actually cause weight gain.
Companies producing gluten-free products have until August of 2014 to comply with the new guidelines. However, there’s a good bet that most gluten-free foods are already meeting the FDA standard. The new standard comes nine years after Congress passed a law mandating the FDA to set official limits, and the FDA hinted at this new standard several years ago, so many gluten-free foods are already up to code.