The news that the Food and Drug Administration is only now proposing a standard for the term “gluten-free’’ might come as a surprise to celiacs, who avoid gluten, and to any other shoppers who scrutinize grocery labels. Some store-bought cookies and breads are already billed as gluten-free, and aren’t they, well, free from gluten?
Maybe not. Like the similarly unregulated term “natural,’’ the “gluten-free’’ designation currently can be just a marketing gimmick. Even when a product doesn’t have gluten-containing grains in the ingredients list, it can still be tainted. That has immediate repercussions for celiacs - from headaches to severe gastrointestinal problems - but not for the manufacturer.
Unlike the term “natural,’’ though, gluten content can be quantified. For products that claim to be gluten-free, the FDA standard would set a maximum gluten level of 20 parts per million; contamination above that threshold is unsafe for celiacs.
After a period of consumer and industry input, the agency plans to release a final rule that will likely go into effect in 2012. This is another case in which marketing claims got ahead of sound health policy, and it’s vital that the FDA catch up.