The Importance of the Gluten-Free Label
Gluten comes in many forms in our processed food, but it is rarely named explicitly in product ingredient lists. It can be a hidden additive in another listed ingredient. For example, gluten is often present in ingredients listed as vegetable proteins and starch, modified food starch and malt flavoring, including maltodextrine or dextrine. The listing of “natural flavoring” on an ingredient list can also camouflage the presence of gluten.
Unfortunately, there is no specific US law requiring the listing of the gluten content of products on their label. Even close inspection of the ingredients listed on a package may not reveal whether or not it is gluten-free.
For these reasons, many people who are gluten-sensitive will not buy any processed food whose label does not explicitly state that it is gluten-free, or bear the widely recognized GF symbol. This is much like many kosher consumers who will not buy any processed food product which does not bear a recognized hashgocha.
The FDA has proposed a rule requiring that any product which advertises itself as “gluten-free” on the label must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten from any source, including cross-contamination.
According to Kimberly Ullner, Founder and President of 1-2-3 Gluten Free, “it is imperative that consumers who wish to purchase gluten-free foods do so from reputable companies. Products produced in dedicated gluten-free facilities and/or certified as gluten-free give consumers added confidence that they truly are gluten-free.”
The Challenge of Preventing Cross-Contamination
The problem of cross-contamination is a serious one. Considerable care must be taken to prevent cross-contamination in both commercial and home food preparation. In a food factory, even a tiny amount of wheat flour left on the equipment can cross-contaminate an otherwise gluten-free product, and those trace amounts of gluten can often trigger symptoms in those with gluten sensitivity.
Cross-contamination can also easily occur in the home kitchen. Gluten is a sticky substance which is hard to remove, and it comprises about 12% of ordinary wheat flour. During the usual preparation for baking, very fine wheat flour dust is released into the air, where it can linger for more than a day. During that time, that flour dust will contaminate any gluten-free foods being prepared in the same kitchen, even if the surfaces have been thoroughly cleaned. It is also very difficult to prevent accidental cross-contamination at the table during buffet-style meals in which both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods are being served.
As a practical measure, households with a family member who is on a gluten-free diet often find it much simpler to simply ban all non-gluten-free products from the kitchen and home because of the high risk of accidental cross-contamination. These households frequently report that others in the home also benefit from the switch to a gluten-free diet, even though they had not been previously diagnosed as having a gluten sensitivity.
The Gluten-Free Kosher Connection
Research has established that celiac disease and other manifestations of gluten sensitivity, such as Crohn’s disease, have a strong genetic component. Since Crohn’s disease, is very prevalent among the descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe, there has been a proliferation of gluten-free products with kosher supervision and “heimishe” brands aimed specifically at the kosher market.
Not too long ago, someone looking for kosher gluten-free food products had to seek them out in health food stores, or on specialized websites catering to Jews with Crohn’s disease, but today such products are readily available from local supermarkets which maintain clearly designated “gluten-free” shelves and freezer cases.
In addition, some popular national brands have begun to prominently identify those of their processed food products which are “gluten-free” on their packaging, such as certain varieties of Chex cereals produced by General Mills.
Gluten-free food products have to use a variety of substitutes to provide the qualities normally supplied by gluten-containing ingredients. For example, the flour used in gluten-free baked goods is typically made from almonds, rice, sorghum, corn, soybeans or other kinds of beans to provide the dietary fiber and protein normally provided by wheat. Acceptable sources of starch for those on a gluten-free diet include potatoes and tapioca.
Gluten-free diets are typically heavy in fresh fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, meats, eggs and many kinds of dairy products. Those on gluten-free diets should be careful to make sure they are getting sufficient amounts of iron, Vitamins B12 and D, magnesium and dietary fiber. Note that gluten-free foods are not necessarily low-calorie or low in sugar, further complicating the gluten-free challenge for those with diabetes or who are seeking to lose weight.