Why is gluten free living so tricky?
Today my dear husband, John, is visiting the blog with an article about the issue of cross contamination especially with gluten containing products manufactured on shared equipment.
Everyone who suffers from celiac disease has at one time or another feared that they might have ingested some gluten through cross contamination. While the slightest amount of gluten ingestion can cause some to have severe overt symptoms, others may be experiencing internal damage and not even be aware of it. (I wrote about this here.) Therefore celiac disease sufferers must always be on guard against cross contamination. After a commitment to a life long diet of gluten free (GF) foods only, the avoidance of cross contamination may be one of the most difficult endeavors for those with celiac.
Our family of 6 is divided right down the middle concerning the disease. Three of us have it and three of us don’t. Ten years ago when two of our sons and I found out that a GF diet was essential to our health not everyone in the house immediately decided to eat GF. Because of this, Barbara immediately realized she would have to change her entire way of preparing and cooking food. In order to prevent us from being contaminated by gluten she immediately segregated toasters, cooking utensils, storage areas, counters for preparation, etc. She then gave strict orders to everyone in the house on how and where they could prepare food. Yep, a knife that was used to cut a wheat hard roll in half could not then be used in the mayonnaise jar. What a blessing to have such an understanding wife! What about cooking. Ah ha. In order to make everyone happy she slowly began to develop the tastiest recipes using only GF free ingredients. Eventually her cooking took on a 100% GF nature. Even our teenage son who is non-celiac finds her food delicious. Since everyone in the house is now GF we don’t worry about cross contamination from each other’s food but that doesn’t mean that we are free from the worry of cross contamination.
What’s the big deal?
In Barbara’s recipe last week for coconut almond bars, she was careful to include almonds that were specifically labeled GF. Some who are new to a GF diet might think, “What’s the big deal? Almonds don’t have gluten in them.” That’s true, but did you ever go to your supermarket and try to find almonds that are labeled GF? It’s very difficult if not impossible. Even the ones that are organic often state: May Contain Peanuts, Other tree Nuts, Milk, Soy, Wheat and Eggs. As most who have been on a GF diet for a while know, this caution is probably there because the nuts may be processed in facilities that are shared with foods made with wheat. Even something as innocuous as almonds may contain gluten. Cross contamination, what a bummer. (If you enjoy almonds or other kinds of nuts and are concerned about cross contamination check out nuts.com. Their nuts are certified GF.)
Ok, we solved the problem with almonds, so how big of a problem could cross contamination be? After all, we keep a GF kitchen and make sure all the processed products we purchase and consume, like pasta and flour, are labeled GF. We should be ok, right? Well, maybe yes, maybe no.
Gluten free labeling
When we purchase products labeled gluten-free, are they really always 100% gluten-free? We would assume that gluten free means 0% gluten right? Well, consider this. On August 5, 2013, the FDA issued a final rule defining the term GF. One part of that rule stated that foods labeled GF must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This is the FDA’s reasoning on how they came up with 20 ppm:
In addition, some celiac disease researchers and some epidemiological evidence suggest that most individuals with celiac disease can tolerate variable trace amounts and concentrations of gluten in foods (including levels that are less than 20 ppm gluten) without causing adverse health effects.
The fact that the statement says “most individuals” and “variable trace amounts” is not very reassuring for many of us who need to be on a 100% gluten-free diet. The research the FDA relied upon just doesn’t seem to be overwhelming. I guess due to the paucity of research they had to pick some starting point and this was it.
However, this is important. The FDA does not check the manufacturer’s products to make sure they are adhering to the 20 ppm guideline. It is up to the manufacturer to maintain the integrity of its claim of GF. But how well are they doing in their attempt to bring us products that are GF, at least according to FDA rules?
Gluten free certification
In October 2014, Tricia Thompson MS, RD (publisher of Glutenfreewatchdog.org) and Suzanne Simpson, dietitian at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, published the results of a 3 year study concerning the amount of gluten actually found in gluten free labeled products. Click here for the study abstract.
The results of the study found that out of 158 labeled gluten-free free food products 95% of the products tested at less than 20 ppm gluten with approximately 87 percent testing below 5 ppm gluten. Those are not seemingly bad numbers but obviously there is room for improvement.
But here’s where the study gets interesting. The researchers state,
Approximately five percent of foods labeled gluten-free but not certified tested at or above 20 ppm gluten. Approximately four percent of foods certified gluten-free tested at or above 20 ppm gluten. There also were some certified gluten-free products that tested below 20 ppm gluten but tested above the gluten levels set by the certifying organization.
What’s interesting about the study is that 4% of certified GF foods tested at or above 20 ppm. Certified GF foods, as opposed to foods that are simply labeled gluten-free, are foods that have been tested for gluten by an independent organization. For example, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization tests facilities and products for gluten and will certify the product GF only if it contains less than 10 ppm of gluten.
You may recognize their logo.
Another independent tester is the Celiac Support Association. It will only certify a product gluten-free if it contains less than 5 ppm of gluten.
According to the results of the study, even though most of the certified GF products tested at less than 5 ppm of gluten, there were still some that tested above 20ppm. Therefore, even a certified GF product is not guaranteed to be gluten-free. However, if the independent tester does find that the FDA rules are being violated, it will notify the manufacturer of its results. If the product is retested and found to be still in violation, the FDA may be notified to encourage compliance.
You all probably want to know the brands that failed the test. Unfortunately, the report didn’t identify the brands that failed. It would have been nice for us, but would have probably wrecked the brand’s business.
What can we take away from this study?
In order to avoid cross contamination or falsely labeled GF products, it is probably best to consume unprocessed GF whole foods as much as possible. It is also probably the healthiest diet.
Sometimes though, we are going to want to eat foods that are processed. After all, if someone wants to enjoy GF pasta, it’s going to be processed. Even if the pasta is homemade, the GF flour is going to be processed. What to do?
What my family has decided to do is limit the processed foods as much as possible, and when we do have to use a processed product we try our best to make sure it’s certified GF. These products are often processed in a dedicated GF facility and are supposed to contain less than 10 pmm of gluten and often less than 5 ppm (see info on Bob’s Red Mill products).
I am not sure, but I believe gluten testing equipment is not sensitive below 5 ppm, so many of these products are probably 100% GF. If one is really concerned about a specific product, the glutenfreewatchdog.org provides information on the GF integrity of individual products. However, it is a subscription service.
Incidentally there were two other recent similar studies performed. You can see the results here. There was also a study conducted by the Glutenfreewatchdog a year ago. It has some results, which you can access here.
I hope this information has been helpful to all those who seek to maintain a 100% gluten free diet and also to those who don’t have the disease but care for those of us who do.
Oooooh…Barbara’s making one of my favorites tonight, gluten free chicken francese. Yum!