Kari Hauger is the founder and blogger behind MinneCeliac, a blog about living gluten-free in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her blog also has restaurant recommendations, travel tips, and recipes. She was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in March 2017 and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with the gluten-free community. You can follow her on instagram (@minneceliac).
Why can’t reading labels just be easy? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go into a grocery store and not have to spend an extra twenty minutes reading each and every ingredient and scouring the boxes for the words “gluten-free”? Or having to pull up the internet for the definition of words we can’t pronounce? How about medications? And beauty products? So much goes into making sure everything we put in and near our mouths is gluten-free.
A lot of progress has been made over the years. Let’s talk about what it means for a product to be labeled gluten-free, what is missing on nutrition labels, and how our voices can make a difference in food labeling!
What does it really mean when a product is labeled gluten-free?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the labeling and nutrition requirements on packages when it comes to including the terms “gluten-free”. According to the FDA website, “…FDA issued a final rule defining “gluten-free” for food labeling, which will help consumers, especially those living with celiac disease, be confident that items labeled “gluten-free” meet a defined standard for gluten content.”
We can all appreciate that the FDA says we can feel confident that a product meets a standard for being at 20 parts per million (PPM) or less. There are a couple important points we should always keep in mind regarding gluten-free labeling.
#1. They allow a company to include the label if it comes from a naturally non-gluten grain, like rice. Makes sense!
#2. It can be labeled gluten-free if it is processed to remove gluten to be less than 20 parts per million.
In regards to the second point noted above, this means that “gluten-free” on a package CAN be from a gluten-containing grain if it has been processed to remove the gluten to be less than 20 PPM. An example of this is gluten-free wheat starch. According to the Schar US website, “Wheat starch is simply a starch made from the processed endosperm of the wheat grain. It is likely processed by dissolving the water-soluble starch and then evaporating the water, the end result being a fine powdery starch”. The starch and gluten portions of the wheat grain are different.
The gluten-free label we are talking about basically means just that…it’s just a label. It doesn’t necessarily mean it is confirmed safe. If a company meets the guidelines above then they can add those two words anywhere on the packaging. This can bring up some questions on whether a food is actually safe for someone with Celiac Disease because it can mean that a food is processed in the facility with wheat products, or even made from a gluten grain which is processed to remove the gluten to be 20 PPM. It is up to the individual to decide if it’s something to consume. So the labeling does help, but does it mean a food is truly safe to consume?
For most, probably is not good enough. That’s why it’s important to look for additional certifications on the packaging and thoroughly read (and understand) all ingredients.
Often you’ll also see the letters GF with a circle around it. This is a qualification from Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) and it means that a product has been “certified” to be gluten-free. GFCO has stricter guidelines than the FDA in that they actually require that products test at 10 PPM or less in order for it to be considered certified gluten-free and carry their logo. Additionally, they require a strict review and testing process for the company’s ingredients and an annual inspection of manufacturing plants. For many people, especially those with Celiac Disease, the GFCO logo is the gold standard.
There are most definitely other programs out there that certify products such as National Sanitation Foundation International, Gluten-Free Food Program and Gluten-Free Certification Program. So much is being done to guarantee our food is safe! Here is an example of some certification program logos you can look for on packaging:
The FDA says that it will monitor companies to make sure they are complying with the regulations, but there is nothing on their website that says they do annual inspections like these other certification programs do.
What to look for in ingredients
The FDA also requires that the ingredient list include the presence of top 8 allergens by highlighting those in bold. There is also a law about “may contain” statements. However, why doesn’t this labeling include gluten?
Well, technically no one is allergic to gluten; wheat is the actual allergen.
Of course Celiac Disease is not an allergy. It’s an autoimmune disease. However, it is much easier to explain an allergy to someone than explain an autoimmune disease. The severity of an allergy is much more understood among the general population. It would be great if barley, spelt, farro, etc. would also be listed in the allergens because to someone with Celiac Disease these grains are just as detrimental as wheat. This is one of the reasons we need to scour those ingredient labels. Companies are required to include the allergens in the following ways:
- In parentheses following the name of the ingredient. Examples: “lecithin (soy),” “flour (wheat),” and “whey (milk)”, or
- Immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement. Example: “Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy.”
So much to look for when buying products, right?!
The FDA does look into every consumer complaint or concern when it comes to food labeling/reactions. And this is one way they can track and research issues with products or even companies.
One thing to try to remember is that most (if not all) companies are acting in good faith and not intentionally trying to deceive consumers when it comes to labeling. They don’t want us getting sick. That would be VERY bad for business.
What about beauty products?
Sunscreen, makeup, shampoo, toothpaste, hand lotion – why would it be important to read labels on personal care products? Not all people with Celiac Disease/gluten intolerance have a skin reaction to gluten, but everyone stands the risk of inadvertently ingesting gluten through touching your mouth, or a product running down your face when washing your hair, or maybe even kissing someone wearing lipstick with gluten in it.
So how can we know if these types of products contain gluten? There can be many names for an ingredient and the FDA allows for these to be listed by a name recognized by a consumer, by the chemical name, or by a name defined in five different “dictionaries” for cosmetic terms. WHY?? This is so confusing to a layperson.
If you’ve ever attempted to read the ingredients on makeup packaging, then you understand that they are not as clear cut as reading food labels. You might see the ingredient triticum vulgare. In terms we can all understand that means wheat germ oil. Why wouldn’t a company be required to just say what it is – the name everyone knows? Personal care products can be so tricky because typically you see a long list of scientific names and you have no idea what they mean!
Luckily, there are a couple of things happening right now that may help us be better informed consumers when it comes to not only what we put in our bodies, but what we put on it. There is currently a bill in the United States Congress called the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would require companies to disclose all the ingredients they use. These changes may not require them to update the labeling to be in a language each consumer would be familiar with. But if the people in charge are being made of aware that changes need to be made then it will hopefully lead to overall better labeling down the road, including for allergens. Changes that will help consumers know exactly what is in their beauty care products.
How you can be more involved
The FDA is currently doing research on allergens within cosmetic products. They are conducting an online survey to better understand the adverse effects of allergens within beauty products and how consumers are affected by them. If you’d like to participate, you can access this online survey by clicking HERE. This is the first time the FDA is asking for consumer input regarding their perception of cosmetics since 1975! They must be getting the hint that we care about transparency and we aren’t willing to just trust that if a product is on the store shelves that it is automatically safe to use!
As you’ve probably seen at places like Target and Sephora, brands are starting to understand how important it is for us to know exactly what we are purchasing. Between labeling products as organic, gluten-free, and vegan there are companies definitely getting the hint! GFCO is also certifying beauty products to be gluten-free, along the same lines that they are certifying food products.
Cross-contamination in beauty products
Cross-contamination can still be an issue even with beauty products (i.e. an inherently gluten-free grain can be contaminated due to the location where it’s grown, stored, or manufactured). Oats can be commonly used in beauty products and just like with ingesting these in the food world, they can be cross-contaminated and could cause a reaction if ingested through beauty products. Think about what would happen if your lipstick had an oat by-product in it and you licked your lips or ate while wearing it? You’re ingesting it. And if the oats are cross-contaminated then that would definitely be an issue for someone with Celiac Disease.
Are medications and supplements gluten-free?
Good question! It is hard to know by reading the packaging and it’s even more difficult to find the answer. Because you’re ingesting medications it’s very important to make sure you know before you take any over-the-counter or prescription medications.
According to the FDA website, “The vast majority of oral drug products either contain no gluten or virtually no gluten.” Additionally, they state, “Based on information available to the Agency, we are aware of no oral drug products currently marketed in the United States that contain wheat gluten or wheat flour intentionally added as an inactive ingredient. We would expect any such product, if it existed, to include wheat gluten or wheat flour in the list of ingredients in its labeling.”
Great! Can we really believe that though?
It may be true that very few oral medications contain gluten. But it’s hard to find out for certain, especially with prescription drugs. At least with over-the-counter medications you can usually find some sort of an alternative that is safe. The FDA has provided guidance for manufacturers to include language on their packaging such as “contains no ingredient made from a gluten-containing grain (wheat, barley, or rye).” The problem there is that it’s just a “recommendation” to include that and not a regulation.
The National Institute of Health has a resource called Daily Med that includes the labeling for 90,000 prescription and non-prescription drugs. They recommend you use this site if you have questions regarding ingredients in your medicine.
When was the last time you saw that statement on a medication bottle or even on the drug facts insert? Usually the pharmacists are unable to tell and they need to make calls to the manufacturer to confirm. This can take time which delays you taking the medication and also takes away from them being able to help others.
Some brands like Target’s Up and Up, for example, have made great steps to label their over-the-counter medications. They include the words Gluten-Free with a background that distinguishes it from the rest of the packaging. There are also vitamins and supplements that are on your local grocery and convenience store shelves that are even certified gluten-free. This is so helpful to just be able to know that YES it is gluten-free!
Hopefully, this information helps you understand what it really means when you are reading nutrition labels on packaging and how you can continue to make the best choices for yourself. Progress is being made all around and it is a great time to be gluten-free!
Note: The information in this article is current as of the published date. Please thoroughly research all products before purchasing and/or consuming.