Finally after nearly 10 years, an FDA regulation is in place for labeling foods gluten-free. It offers consumers assurance about the safety of the foods they need for a healthy lifestyle. The FDA recommends that restaurants quickly adopt these regulations for their gluten-free menu options. But the regulation leaves wiggle room and is creating some confusion. Sometimes statements appear on packages and menus that seem to indicate a food is gluten-free, without saying gluten-free. Let’s look at a couple examples.

Gluten-removed

There are gluten-free beers and beers that say ‘gluten-removed’. These beers are not the same.

Gluten-free beer is made only with grains such as sorghum, rice and millet. These do not contain the protein ‘gluten’ found in wheat, rye or barley — a standard ingredient in beer. Gluten-free beers are regulated by the FDA because they do not meet the definition of “beer” established by the TTB, who regulates beer and distilled spirits. Gluten-free beers must contain less than 20 ppm gluten.

"The FDA regulation allows wheat starch in gluten free foods. What is unclear is what is meant by and acceptable “processing to remove gluten.”

Gluten-removed beer is made from barley, a grain that is prohibited in products labeled as gluten-free under the FDA Gluten-Free Labeling regulation. These beers fall under the jurisdiction of the TTB. This has put this type of beer in a difficult place. The TTB follows the FDA’s lead for labeling requirements for gluten-free alcohols. Because gluten-removed beer contains barley, the TTB says it cannot be labeled gluten-free.

Causing a reaction

The premise of these beers for being gluten-free is a special process used to remove the gluten during beer making. It is claimed that because current testing procedures, for finding gluten in food, do not detect gluten then the beer must be safe for persons with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders. The challenge is that the process breaks down the proteins into fragments that are not detected by the tests and may give false results. Additionally some people say these beers give them a ‘gluten-reaction’ while others have no reaction.

The scientific community (including the FDA and TTB) is at odds about the safety of gluten-removed products and is unwilling to support their use in a gluten-free diet.

Likewise, a manufacturer may use ingredients that are processed to remove gluten. This generally is an ingredient made from barley. It is possible to remove gluten from an ingredient like wheat starch so it can be used safely in a gluten free product. The FDA regulation allows wheat starch in gluten free foods. What is unclear is what is meant by and acceptable “processing to remove gluten.” Without clear guidelines manufacturers and consumers are confused about what is and is not gluten-free. Restaurants have the same struggle.

Buyer beware

The solution for some restaurants and manufacturers is to use language that is not controlled by the FDA’s labeling regulation. Terms such as “gluten-removed,” “gluten-friendly,” or “gluten-safe” are not included in the regulation. Without regulation, these terms have no real meaning and do not indicate the product is safe. As always — If in doubt, go without.