Recently, I ran across this article from Experience Life: Be Cautious of Gluten-Free Labels:
Think you can have your gluten-free cake and eat it, too? Not so fast. Despite the hundreds of products that sport gluten-free labels, the FDA has no official standards to regulate the claim. For those striving to limit their gluten intake, that lack of regulation can be frustrating. But for those with celiac disease, hypersensitivities to cereal grains, or certain autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (in which the body mistakenly attacks the thyroid), a “gluten-free” food with traces of gluten can pose a serious health threat. Fortunately, new rules likely to be unveiled later this year should clear up the confusion.
As it stands now, the FDA only requires companies to state whether common allergens, such as wheat or nuts, are ingredients in a product. Labeling regulations are lax for products potentially cross-contaminated with allergens during the manufacturing process — something that happens frequently in facilities that process a wide variety of foods. That means small quantities of gluten can easily sneak into products labeled “gluten-free.”
The article holds out the hope in the form of FDA regulations, but I don’t think that’s the answer for people with Celiac or severe intolerances. Labels may not be accurate, often due to cross-contamination. A 2010 study found that many “inherently non-gluten grains” contained significant amounts of gluten:
Twenty-two inherently gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours not labeled gluten-free were purchased in June 2009 and sent unopened to a company who specializes in gluten analysis. All samples were homogenized and tested in duplicate using the Ridascreen Gliadin sandwich R5 enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay with cocktail extraction. Thirteen of 22 (59%) samples contained less than the limit of quantification of 5 parts per million (ppm) for gluten. Nine of 22 (41%) samples contained more than the limit of quantification, with mean gluten levels ranging from 8.5 to 2,925.0 ppm. Seven of 22 samples (32%) contained mean gluten levels >/=20 ppm and would not be considered gluten-free under the proposed FDA rule for gluten-free labeling. Gluten contamination of inherently gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours not labeled gluten-free is a legitimate concern.
For people with severe reactions to gluten, the solution should include avoiding all grains, I think. As the Experience Life article says at the end:
In the meantime, you can eliminate the guesswork by avoiding processed foods whenever possible. “The best way to avoid gluten is to eat products that aren’t manufactured,” says Korn. “Most natural, non-grain whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, meats, legumes and fish, are inherently gluten-free.”
Gluten is everywhere, particularly when eating out… and those “gluten-free” cookies and cupcakes are just increasing the risk of accidental exposure.