Should I Choose Only Certified Gluten-Free Foods?

Certified gluten-free foods have less gluten in them, but only by a bit

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Should I buy only certified gluten-free foods?. © Jane M. Anderson

If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is it important to choose only certified gluten-free foods—e.g., those that have been verified to be gluten-free by an independent certifying organization? Or is it fine to eat foods that are labeled gluten-free but not certified?

Foods that are certified gluten-free receive a private organization's seal of gluten-free approval, meaning that they are supposed to meet higher standards than foods that are merely labeled gluten-free.

Meanwhile, foods that have not been certified gluten-free need only to meet the minimum gluten-free rules set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the manufacturers themselves (not an independent organization) decide whether the products meet those FDA rules.

Based on this, you'd probably believe intuitively that certified gluten-free foods likely contain less trace gluten — and therefore, are more likely to be safe, even for those who are particularly sensitive—than foods labeled gluten-free but not certified. And if you thought that, you'd be right... but not as right as you might think.

Let me explain.

Gluten-Free Certification Basics

First, you need to remember that many foods considered "gluten-free" actually contain a tiny bit of gluten. At these levels, the amount of gluten is so small that it's measured in something called "parts per million."

However, a sizeable number of people with celiac or gluten sensitivity still react to these tiny amounts of gluten.

Therefore, having less trace gluten in products helps many of us avoid glutenings.

In theory, the three organizations in the U.S. that certify products gluten-free allow far less trace gluten in certified products — half or one-quarter as much trace gluten as the FDA allows. The FDA allows less than 20 parts per million of gluten in "gluten-free"-labeled foods, while certifying organizations require less than 10 ppm or even 5 ppm, depending on the organization.

The certifying organizations also require manufacturers to take steps intended to ensure that the raw ingredients they use to make their products are sourced carefully to avoid gluten cross-contamination, and they help manufacturers follow best practices to avoid cross-contamination in facilities that also process gluten products.

This all sounds pretty good, right? And it is, in theory. But a study from celiac nutritionist and Gluten-Free Watchdog founder Tricia Thompson shows that in practice, buying certified gluten-free products might help you avoid a little more trace gluten, but maybe not that much.

What Did The Study Actually Find?

The study looked at 158 different food products, including 112 products labeled gluten-free but not certified, and 46 certified gluten-free products.

It found that 85.7% of the labeled-not-certified products and 89.1% of the certified products tested to contain less than 5 parts per million of gluten (the lowest gluten level detectable by commercial test). So there's definitely an edge for certified products, but not a huge one.

The study also found that 4.5% of labeled-not-certified products contained between 5 and 10 ppm of gluten, while 2.2% of certified products contained that level of gluten — once again, a small edge for certified products.

A total of 4.5% of labeled-not-certified gluten-free products clocked in between 10 and 20 parts per million of gluten—allowable for them, as they're not required to meet the more stringent gluten-free certification rules. But just slightly fewer—4.3%—of products certified gluten-free also came in between 10 and 20 parts per million of gluten... and those are required to have less trace gluten in them, so those products broke the certification rules.

Finally (and most scarily), 5.4% of labeled-not-certified products and 4.3% of certified gluten-free products had 20 parts per million or more of gluten, meaning they violated the FDA's rules on what can be labeled "gluten-free."

So What Does All This Mean?

I'll admit the study took me by surprise—I've always had more confidence in products that were certified gluten-free than I have had in foods merely labeled gluten-free. But this research project makes me realize three things:

  1. The vast majority of foods labeled gluten-free (regardless of whether they're certified) contain less than 5 parts per million of gluten, which likely is good enough to prevent glutenings for most of those with celiac or gluten sensitivity.
  2. On average, foods that are certified gluten-free tend to have a little less trace gluten in them than foods that are labeled-not-certified, but the differences aren't huge.
  3. A significant percentage—one in 20, more or less—of gluten-free-labeled products actually don't qualify as gluten-free, regardless of whether they're certified.

So back to the original question: Are you safer buying only certified gluten-free products? Based on the results of this study, you do appear to be a little safer, but frankly, not all that much.

Source:

Thompson T et al. A Comparison of Gluten Levels in Labeled Gluten-Free and Certified Gluten-Free Foods Sold in the United States. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 69, 143-146.

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