What “gluten-free” labels actually mean?

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By Gluten-free Sam
Reading and understanding food labels can be difficult at the best of times. When you can’t eat gluten, it can be a potential minefield.

People with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance need to avoid any foods that contain Wheat, Rye, Barley or Oats (unless of course, they are labelled Pure Oats, then they will just contain Avenin - which can for some people trigger similar symptoms to gluten), as these all contain gluten. Under current EU law, only foods which contain less than 20 parts per million (PPM) of gluten can be labelled as “gluten-free”. This applies to all foods, whether pre-packaged (as the majority are) or sold loose.

Although it might be scary to think that the gluten-free food you eat could contain ANY gluten at all, consider this: the most recent scientific research has shown that it is only above the 20ppm threshold that changes in the gut cells occur in coeliacs.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85:160-166) showed that coeliacs who consumed 10mg of gluten each day showed no signs of intestinal damage, whereas those who consumed 50mg of gluten did. Even if you ate 500g of food each day that contained 20ppm of gluten, you still would not have consumed 10mg.

Coeliacs do vary in sensitivity (as do the gluten intolerant) and a small amount of people report symptoms even when consuming food below 20ppm.  It is possible that they may be extra sensitive to small amounts of gluten, but it is also likely they may have additional undiagnosed food intolerances.

Other labels to watch out for?

Suitable for coeliacs/crossed grain symbol? If a product bears the crossed grain symbol or states “suitable for coeliacs” this is practically no different from saying that it is gluten-free. The crossed grain symbol is licensed by Coeliac UK, and simply offers another way of showing that the product is gluten-free.

Very low gluten? Not seen very often as few foods fit the criteria. Not only must the food product contain less than 100ppm of gluten, it MUST contain cereal ingredients which have been specially processed to remove the gluten. As these contain more than 20ppm, “very low gluten” foods are not suitable for coeliacs.

No gluten containing ingredients (NGCI)? This describes a product that has no gluten containing ingredients, but also tells us that the manufacturer has gone to reasonable lengths to avoid cross contamination in the factory or in the kitchen. Sending products to be tested for gluten can be expensive, so NCGI is an alternative to that label. This term is not currently covered by the law, but you can get Coeliac UK accreditation for NGCI products.

May contain gluten/produced in a factory alongside gluten/may contain traces of gluten? If you are a coeliac, these labels are incredibly unhelpful. There is a big difference between gluten being used somewhere in the same factory building, and it being used on the same production line. Generally, my advice would be for coeliacs to avoid any products like these, but you can always try contacting the manufacturer for clarification.

Wheat-free? The term “wheat-free” is not subject to the same legislation that “gluten-free” faces. It is almost never printed on packaging, except alongside gluten-free labels, and you tend to see it in bakeries who want to appeal to a certain demographic (usually “lifestyle” gluten-freers) without bothering to worry about cross-contamination. Be wary.

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The rice macaroni is tasty enough, but the cheese sauce is a little runny. Good for when you need something in a hurry or are craving comfort food. Tasted by Gluten-free Sam.

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