What Does “Gluten Free” Mean?

by | Updated: December 3rd, 2016 | Read time: 2 minutes

If you’re new to gluten-free, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and several other grains. For those with a condition known as celiac disease, ingesting gluten can mean big trouble. For others, gluten can lead to stomach aches and uncomfortable side effects. In the past decade, the prevalence of (and demand for) gluten-free food has been steadily rising. But it wasn’t until just recently that the label “gluten-free” on a food item was defined by the FDA. Read on to find out what it really means.

Gluten-Free Foods

Cookies, crackers, pasta, oatmeal, beer – you name it, there’s a gluten-less version of it. But up until August 2013, it was up to the discretion of manufacturers to determine exactly what “gluten-free” meant. And for consumers with celiac and other digestive disorders, that meant putting their trust — and their health– in the hands of food companies. While most major manufacturers did their diligence by testing ingredients and finished products before labeling them as “gluten free,” there was no guarantee.

For those who are used to scouring ingredient lists for sources of hidden gluten, the new guidelines are a good start. That’s because:

  • Manufacturers are now only allowed to label a food as “gluten free” if its gluten content is below 20 parts per million (ppm)
  • The food item cannot contain a direct source of gluten (i.e. wheat, barley, rye, spelt) or an ingredient derived from a direct source of gluten if it has not been processed to remove the protein
  • If an ingredient has been processed to remove gluten protein, it cannot contain more than 20 ppm

Researchers consider 20 ppm to be a “safe” level, even for those with celiac disease – but of course, it’s possible that a reaction could occur from that miniscule amount. The conclusion? If you have celiac disease or a severe gluten intolerance, look for the words “gluten free,” “free of gluten” or “no gluten”– but keep checking those labels!