What Is the Definition of Gluten-Free?

What exactly does gluten-free mean? Check checked in with food system expert Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD, shared this article about gluten-free standards with us!

Gluten Standards

By Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD

“It’s cross contamination,” says Stewart Singleton, who trains food service professionals on allergy awareness including how to properly prepare gluten-free menu options. “Some restaurants, such as Mellow Mushroom, toss their pizzas with cornmeal, so that’s OK.”

An estimated 3 million Americans have celiac disease and must avoid gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Gluten triggers the production of antibodies that damage the lining of the small intestine.

“If I consume a food that contains even the tiniest amount of gluten, such as a burger that was touched by a hamburger bun, I can miss a whole day of work,” says Singleton, who was diagnosed with celiac disease 10 years ago.

Finally, a definition for gluten-free

The detective work to identify sources of the offending gluten will soon be a lot easier, even if the product is labeled gluten-free.

New federal standards have been set for gluten-free claims with a limit of 20 parts per million in products. “A standard is important,” Singleton says. He points out that food service ingredients will improve, too. “For instance, there’s a commercial salad dressing company that used Worcestershire powder in their dressings, but that contains barley malt, which is not gluten-free, so they had to change the recipe.”

Who wants gluten-free?

From bread to beer, the nationwide demand for gluten-free products is robust, representing more than $4 billion in annual sales. Those with Celiacs benefit from the improved quality and quantity of gluten-free products, but market demand was led by a greater number of consumers identified as gluten intolerant.

“From day one, we knew that gluten-free was going to be a big part of our agenda,” says Doug Turbush, chef and owner of Seed Kitchen & Bar in Marietta. “Gluten-free demand has been overwhelming.” Turbush knows now that the gluten-free soy sauce he purchases for the restaurant has to meet federal standards.

The downside of the demand is the temptation for some restaurants to offer gluten-free options without doing it right. Travel journalist Laura Powell suffers from migraines when she consumes gluten. “I’ve even seen menus where gluten-free is asterisked,” she says. “If you read the fine print, you find ‘almost gluten-free,’ which is like being a little bit pregnant.”

Beyond the gluten-free grocery list, Singleton says restaurants need to do more. “They need designated staff, preparation areas and equipment,” he says. “At Yeah Burger, they use separate toasters for the gluten-free buns.”

Powell adds, “Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s worthy of being on your menu. Don’t feel the need to add a dish if the quality is not up to the rest of your standards.”

Even with the new standards, you can’t be shy …

 Find out more information about celiac disease.

Noted nutrition expert, award winning food journalist and television personality, and Best Food Facts advisor, Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian. Carolyn’s refreshing food philosophy and recommendations are captured in this column to help you, Eat Better for Life!

Image: “Banana bread” by KittyKaht is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.