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FDA Issues First Standards For 'Gluten-Free' Labeling


These days, the grocery aisles are full of labels meant to entice health-conscious shoppers: local, organic, free range. But what exactly those labels mean has stirred a lot of debate in recent years. Well, the FDA has put to rest the latest label debate, this one over what can be called gluten-free. Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye, and some three million Americans suffer from celiac disease, which means they have trouble processing it. That's a problem because the gluten-free label has been sucked into the marketing vortex of fad diets, with no official standard - until now.

Dr. Peter Green has long advocated for a standard. He directs the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. Hi there, Dr. Green.

DR. PETER GREEN: Hi, good afternoon.

CORNISH: So, Dr. Green, start by explaining these new FDA guidelines. What is the standard now?

GREEN: The new regulations define gluten-free as being less than 20 parts per million in a food content. And all around the world, governments have introduced standards so that the manufacturers of gluten-free foods can maintain a certain standard. And at last, we now have one in the United States, which indicates that people with celiac disease can tolerate up to 20 parts per million gluten in the food products.

Previously, the manufacturers haven't had this standard, and so some may opt for no gluten, no detectible gluten. So at last now, we have a standard, which is very reassuring for both the food industry, because they know how to do it properly now, and for patients so that they can be reassured that the food that they're getting is within this standard that we regard as being safe for people with celiac disease.

CORNISH: And when you are looking at foods on the market now, I mean, how much of a variation could there be? I mean, help us understand what that standard means.

GREEN: This standard means that all food products should have no more than 20 parts per million if they're going to claim to be gluten-free. Now, it is a voluntary standard, and we actually go to the trouble of finding out if companies actually measure the amount of gluten because it should be within these guidelines to be labeled as gluten-free.

CORNISH: And, generally, do companies do that?

GREEN: I think that needs to be determined. You know, more and more companies are producing gluten-free foods. It used to be just almost boutique food companies. But now, the large food manufacturers are going into the gluten-free food business. So we need to see what happens. We need to see how well they're determining the amount of gluten in their food products.

CORNISH: When you're at the grocery store, I mean, what's the wildest thing you've seen labeled gluten-free, something that just didn't make any sense to have the label?

GREEN: Water.

CORNISH: Really?

GREEN: Right.


GREEN: You know, there are naturally gluten-free foods, and we call them fruit and vegetables and meat and dairy. So they're naturally gluten-free. They shouldn't really need to be labeled as having gluten-free levels in them.

CORNISH: Dr. Peter Green, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GREEN: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Dr. Peter Green. He's the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University.



This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.