Do Food Labeling Laws Require Manufacturers To Disclose Gluten?

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Do these need to disclose gluten or not?. ImagesByBarbara/Getty Images

Question: Do food labeling laws require manufacturers to disclose gluten ingredients in their products?

Answer: Unfortunately, no — not in the United States, anyway. For those who live in Canada, the gluten-free labeling rules do require disclosure of gluten ingredients.

In the United States, the federal law governing allergens in foods requires manufacturers to disclose the top eight food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans, and wheat.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, these eight foods account for 90% of all food allergies.

However, gluten is found in the grains barley and rye in addition to wheat, and the FDA's allergen regulations do not cover barley and rye.

Of course, celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are not true allergies. The FDA's rules, meanwhile, are aimed at substances that can cause immediate, potentially very serious allergic reactions (the kind that can kill you). Wheat allergy can cause that type of reaction, but celiac and gluten sensitivity cannot.

So How Do I Know If a Food Has Gluten In It?

This gets tricky. Since U.S. manufacturers don't have to disclose gluten, many choose not to do so. They can't hide wheat (although they can use a variety of different labeling terms for it), but they are allowed to hide barley and rye.

Of those two, barley is the most likely to appear in a food but not be called out explicitly on a food label — it can be hidden behind terms such as "natural sweetener" and "natural smoke flavoring.," both of which can contain barley in some form.

More subtle is the risk of gluten cross-contamination: Food manufacturers do not have any legal obligation to tell consumers if a product has been manufactured in the same facility or on the same lines as another product that contains gluten. Some companies will highlight this risk — they may use statements like "may contain traces of wheat" to do this — but other companies will not.

Some large companies — Kraft Foods and Unilever, for example — will clearly identify any gluten-containing ingredients on their food labels. However, if their products aren't explicitly labeled gluten-free, they still could be subject to cross-contamination in processing.

This is a bigger issue than it might seem at first glance. Companies that make foods specifically for the gluten-free community alongside their regular, gluten-containing foods follow some pretty strict protocols to keep gluten out of the gluten-free products.

These protocols involve careful selection of gluten-free ingredients, special storage of those ingredients (for example, to keep them away from wheat flour dust), and deep cleaning before actually making something that's gluten-free. Companies that aren't marketing foods as "gluten-free" likely aren't taking those steps.

The Bottom Line

To stay safe, you might want to purchase only food products that are specifically labeled gluten-free, or those that appear on companies' gluten-free lists.

In addition to its rules on allergens in foods, the FDA requires strict standards for foods labeled as gluten-free, and the vast majority of manufacturers — some 95% — are meeting or exceeding those standards. 

Source:

Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Law of 2004. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed March 14, 2011.

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