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Gallons of ink have been spilled about so-called “hidden gluten” foods. Sure enough, gluten-free gumshoes would be well served by investigating foods – such as deli meats – that harbor gluten particle fugitives.

However, there’s a new concern growing among celiac experts: how to define the two words “gluten-free.” Right alongside a ballooning debt and sky-high unemployment, Congress is working hard on figuring out how to approach the sticky subject of gluten-free labeling.

Here’s the current state of affairs and what to watch out for.


No Such Thing as a Gluten-Free Lunch


There’s not much debate over whether there should be rules in place to make sure that products which claim to be gluten-free actually are: scientists, public health officials and individuals with celiac disease agree that gluten-free labeling needs to happen in order to help those on a gluten-free diet make appropriate food choices. In fact, the FDA has spent the last two years working on criteria for these labels.

However, there’s been a bottleneck over how much gluten should be allowed in a given food to be considered “gluten-free.”

While it seems logical that gluten-free food should contain no gluten whatsoever, the practicality of this level of stringency is impossible. Firstly, today’s technology isn’t able to detect whether a food contains below a certain level of gluten. The machines simply aren’t sophisticated enough. Secondly, although in practical terms even a small amount of gluten can cause serious harm, this may not be so for extremely tiny amounts – the equivalent of a few grains of sand in a sandbox.


How Much Is Too Much?


The current debate about how much gluten should be allowed in gluten-free products is split among two camps: those that think that 20 parts per million (ppm) is enough and those that would prefer a much more stringent 1 ppm.

To the FDA’s credit, they’ve solicited the opinions of the world’s top celiac experts, including Dr. Alessio Fasano. Fasano believes that 20ppm is stringent enough – at least to get the ball rolling on the new labeling. However, many of the world’s experts think that 20ppm is more than enough to cause a flare-up in the sub-population of celiacs that is most sensitive.

Unfortunately, there haven’t been many studies looking into the differing effects of 20ppm vs. 1 ppm on the intestines of people with celiac. However, one small-scale study did find that the 20ppm standard used in Europe was more than tough enough.


Can I Have My Label Yet?


The FDA is accepting feedback on the proposed gluten-free labeling until October 3rd. If you have something to say, feel free to shoot the FDA a comment by following the instructions on this page:

The FDA and lawmakers will spend the next few months hammering out the final details and we should have a law in place by early 2012 – certainly an important milestone for the celiac community.


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