Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Labels have the ability to influence our perceptions, but when they're appearing on packaged food, these terms can be misleading and confusing. The term “natural” remains undefined by the Food and Drug Administration. And, the health halo effect leads us to believe that certain labels, such as "certified organic," make a blanket statement about the food's healthfulness or calorie count — when, in reality, an organic cookie is still a cookie. But, labeling something as "gluten-free" should be pretty simple: It either contains gluten, or it doesn't, right?
Well, this label isn't as clear-cut as you might think. The FDA tried to clarify things by creating a uniform (and stricter) definition of what "gluten-free" means last August. It gave companies a year to comply with the new guidelines and began enforcing them last week.
Now, per the FDA requirement, to label a product as gluten-free, it must: be inherently gluten-free; not contain an ingredient that is a gluten-containing grain; not contain an ingredient derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten; or, not contain an ingredient derived from a gluten-containing grain that has more than 20 parts per million of gluten.
Sounds like a big, glutinous mouthful of requirements. But, these stricter guidelines "will help people with celiac disease feel more confident in their food choices and help to prevent less flare-ups and damage to their small intestines, as well as other serious health conditions,” explains Samantha Lynch, MS, RD, CDN.
For more information about the new labeling requirements, check out the FDA’s Q&A. While a step in the right direction, the major flaw in this ruling is that it doesn’t require testing for the presence of gluten — either in a food item's ingredients or in the finished product. So, as Lynch reminds us, always be your own advocate and ask questions.