Gluten Free Labeling Regulation: What Retail Dietitians Need to Know

Gluten Free Labeling Regulation: What Retail Dietitians Need to Know

July 23, 2014

By Amanda Rubizhevsky

According to NPD, “a third of US adults say they want to cut down or be free of gluten in their diets.” In terms of financial growth, Mintel reports the sale of gluten-free products is expected to bring in over $15 billion annually by 2016. The popularity of gluten-free diets has been fueled by the growing desire to improve digestive health, brain function, immune deficiencies, emotional wellbeing, and more.

Last year, the FDA announced its long-awaited gluten-free food-labeling rule. Manufacturers were encouraged to comply with the rule immediately but had a year to comply. The deadline is fast approaching: August 5th, 2014.  So what are the top facts about the gluten free labeling regulation that retail dietitians need to know?  Read on to find out.

Two basic facts of the new FDA gluten-free regulation: 1) It is voluntary, so if a company chooses to label a product gluten free, it must be below 20ppm, (not 20ppm or less) and 2) it cannot contain a grain that is derived from gluten (unless that ingredient has been processed to remove the gluten).

To review, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires products, by law, to label the top eight allergens and any processing ingredients used to make those products, but it does not take into consideration cross-contamination. The gluten free regulation considers cross-contamination.  So at retail, especially in prepared foods, this is something that needs extra attention.

Only foods regulated by the FDA are covered under the regulation. This includes all foods other than meat and poultry. Dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids) and imported food products that are subject to FDA regulations are also included.  The USDA has said that they will voluntarily encourage compliance with the FDA gluten-free regulation, but there is no official stance. So with meat products, you need to be very careful guiding your shoppers to gluten free products. You’ll want to understand how the company is determining gluten-free and if they’re following the gluten free regulation.

What about alcohol? Distilled spirits and wines that contain seven percent or more alcohol by volume and malted beverages made with malted barley or hops are not covered by the regulation.  These alcoholic beverages are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The FDA says it will work with the TTB to “harmonize” gluten-free labeling requirements.  Still, knowing more about the company and how it processes its products is key for helping consumers.

Tricky labeling: How does the new FDA ruling work with FALCPA?  A food that includes wheat starch, for example, that has been processed to remove gluten can be included in a gluten free product that tests under 20ppm.  But a disclaimer that says indicating that the wheat has been processed to remove the gluten must be included.  In addition, the product also has to have a “contains” statement because FALCPA mandates allergen labeling.  Products that have an ingredient, like (gluten removed) wheat starch, will have a “contains wheat” statement on the package, and it will still be gluten free. Dietitians must become familiar with this labeling, and be able to explain to customers that the products are gluten free.

Manufacturers are not required to test for the presence of gluten in ingredients or in the finished “gluten-free” labeled food product. However, they are responsible for ensuring that the food product tests under 20ppm. Manufacturers will need to determine how they will ensure this as FDA may use the full range of its routine post-market monitoring activities to enforce the final rule on gluten-free food labeling.

If a product makes a gluten free claim and is certified by a third-party agency, it has to meet the strictest standards required. In some programs the standard is 10ppm or less, so if a company carries a certification the FDA will hold them to the 10ppm, not the less than 20ppm standard. This ensures manufacturers are stating truthful and non-misleading information on their food labels.

Foodservice is encouraged to use the same definition for gluten-free, although it is not a requirement. One of the most important considerations for foodservice is cross contamination. If your store wants to offer truly gluten free prepared food items, designating a space that all kitchen staff have identified as gluten free only and use for preparation, packaging and then reheating, is ideal. Foodservice can go through training programs to help put procedures in place to deliver truly gluten free foods to shoppers.

What about the “made without gluten” or “not made with gluten-containing ingredients” label? Neither the final rule nor FDA’s general food labeling regulations prohibit the use of these statements, provided that the statement is truthful and not misleading. The only issue here is potential consumer confusion.