Health Column: FDA announces new guidelines on gluten

Those who are allergic to gluten can soon feel confident that products being advertised as “gluten-free” are truly safe enough to eat. 

Until now, the term had been used freely, similar to the health claim “all natural.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration placed no restrictions on such markers before, but thanks to new guidelines that took effect Aug. 5, manufacturers can now use the gluten-free label only on products that contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, which is considered a trace amount.

That is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using available lab analysis tools, according to the FDA. The agency estimates that about 5 percent of foods formerly labeled “gluten-free” contained 20 ppm or more of gluten.

Lara McNeil, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with East End Nutrition, said the distinction is important, as those with celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine — can suffer from reactions if they unknowingly eat the wrong product.

“[Reactions] can lead to irreversible damage to the intestinal lining, which can put [people] at risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies,” she said

Ms. McNeil said about 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease and noted that many more suffer from what’s known as gluten intolerance — often associated with gastrointestinal problems —and do their best to stay away from it.

Gluten is a mixture of proteins that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley and crossbreeds of these grains. It’s what makes foods light and fluffy, among other things, according to the FDA.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Mark Coronel, director of endoscopy at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, explained in a past interview that these proteins can be difficult for the body to break down.

Because of that, Ms. McNeil said, gluten-free diets have become quite popular, as people believe they are choosing healthier food options. But she cautions that people may unknowingly be doing the opposite.

“A lot of these gluten-free products are highly processed,” she said. “They contain many additives and preservatives and are often higher in calories then their gluten-containing counterparts.”

Ms. McNeil cautioned that while the new FDA restrictions will eventually help consumers, products manufactured before Aug. 5 might carry a gluten-free label, but still contain more than the allowable amount of gluten.

To play it safe, she suggested that concerned consumers take the extra step and educate themselves on how to read the nutrition labels. Doing this will also help people to identify highly processed products.

The FDA notes that the guidelines mentioned above apply only to packaged foods and that restaurants using the claim are not being held to the strict standard. The agency suggests that diners ask what ingredients are being used and how menu items are prepared.

Ms. McNeil cautioned that despite the diet now being easier to follow, people should not switch to a gluten-free diet without first consulting their doctor.

“When you eliminate food groups from your diet you are put at risk for nutrient deficiencies,” she explained.

Got a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected]. Follow her on twitter @carriemiller01.