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Most foods labeled ‘gluten free’ are indeed free of gluten, FDA announces

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It sounds obvious, but for a long time ‘gluten free’ didn’t actually have to mean gluten free

NOT gluten free.
NOT gluten free.
Photo: Pixabay

“Gluten-free” labels are mostly reliable, the Food and Drug Administration announced on Tuesday. That sounds like a no-brainer — of course foods labeled as gluten free shouldn’t have any gluten in them, right? But that hasn’t always been the case; I can tell you, as a person with celiac disease, that it’s a relief to find out the labels are actually meaningful these days.

Since 2014, the FDA has required that anything labeled “gluten free” contain no more than 20 molecules of gluten in every million molecules of foodstuff. And to back up that requirement, it actually goes out and checks. Of the 250 different cereals, flours, baking mixes, and granola bars it tested from 2015 through 2016, only one product contained more gluten than allowed, according to the results that the FDA released this week. The sole gluten-containing product, which STAT identified as Honey Nut Cheerios, was promptly recalled and General Mills changed how it made the cereal. When the FDA tested it again: no more gluten.

Before 2014, a “gluten-free” label was more a decoration than a promise. Of course these days, it seems like everyone and their dogs are on gluten-free diets. But when I was diagnosed with celiac disease 14 years ago, it was the dark ages before Miley Cyrus called gluten “crapppp” on Twitter and McGnaw the Gluten Free Beaver danced on The Colbert Report. To find out if something was truly safe to eat, I had to test it myself.

Meet McGnaw, the gluten-free beaver. Video: The Colbert Report

Back then, no one knew what the hell I was saying when I asked whether a food was gluten free. (I still remember a confused waiter responding, “No, you have to pay for it.”) I’d have to explain that gluten is a type of protein in wheat, rye, and barley. In certain people, it can trigger an autoimmune reaction that obliterates the lining of their guts and makes them feel like crap for days. So, does this salad come with the croutons already mixed in, or can I get it without them?

The hard part about sticking to a gluten-free diet wasn’t cutting out the usual gluten-containing suspects. By the time my doctor figured out was wrong with me, I was so sick I couldn’t even stand the smell of baking bread or a boiling pot of pasta. No, the hard part was figuring out where sneakier gluten was lurking. Was it floating in soy sauce? Beefing up the volume of spices? Mixed into the medications I use every day? Hiding in difficult-to-decipher ingredients like modified food starch, or maybe tocopherol?

That’s why it was such a bummer that the “gluten-free” label didn’t mean anything concrete. It was enough to make you paranoid that the evil protein was everywhere, just waiting to send you running to the nearest bathroom. (Or leave you straining in that bathroom for days, depending on your body’s favorite flavor of gluten reaction.)

So, my parents bought test kits, which made for a fun family science experiment where bad lab technique could mean diarrhea later on. We’d smash up little bits of food at the dinner table, stick the mess in some sort of liquid, plop in a dipstick, and wait until we could see a positive or negative readout. For whatever reason, anything with apples always came up positive with the particular test kit we used. I don’t know if the test just wasn’t specific enough and these were false positives, or if apple juice and apple sauce really were frequently contaminated. I mostly stayed away from them, just in case.

That all changed in 2013, when the FDA told manufacturers their products needed to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten if they wanted to say it was gluten free. And in 2014, the FDA started enforcing the rule — presumably with better equipment than I had. I haven’t used a test kit in years, anyway, and this week’s announcement reassured me I don’t have to: I can continue eating foods labeled gluten free, confident that I won’t need to plan the next few days around where the nearest toilets are. I could even eat gluten-free apple sauce, if I wanted to. But, really, I’m good.