Is a “gluten free” label trustworthy?

The short answer is: It depends totally on you. If you are extremely sensitive to gluten, then no, even if its “gluten free certified”, but if you are able to tolerate minimal amounts of gluten, then yes. So in the end its up to your specific case. If you don’t know, then you have to try and test for yourself.


I already talked about what gluten free really means. Defining it as “a way of processing foods that strives to keep them safe from gluten”. But, as always, that is not the end of the story.

In the European Union, Canada and the United States the use of gluten free labeling is way more controlled than it is in Latin America. Here I’ve realized that many gluten free labels are just there as a markting tool, more than a security practice.

In the United States, the FDA states that any product that uses a “gluten free label” should contain 20 particles per million of gluten or less (20 ppm). The same criteria is used in the European Union and Canada.

This means that any product coming from these parts of the world will comply with this rule. However, as you can see, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these products are 100% gluten free. It means that they contain such a small quantity of gluten that is considered safe. However there are people (me included) that even such a small amount of gluten can wreak havoc in our health.

Things get a little worse if you travel to certain countries in latin américa. I’ll speak about Mexico because that is what I’m most familiar with.

In 2014 Mexican food labeling laws were reformed, and they now require that foods containing gluten and casein to be labelled. Here is the document about this.

In short, the law requires that food that contain casein or gluten should be labelled. However it doesn’t state the criteria by which to define if a product contains gluten and the amount it can or cannot contain, in order to use a valid “gluten free” label. This is why you may find many labels saying something like “gluten free by the origin of its ingredients”.

As always, the worst problem is cross contamination, which can happen even at the begining of harvesting crops, it’s transport or even storage, way before processing them. Unfortunatelly there is no law that regulates these processes. There is no 20 ppm rule in order to allow a gluten free label. The label may only say if the ingredients are a source or contain gluten, and that’s it. The rest is left to the manufacturers free will.

This leaves us with the use of a gluten free label just as a legal term, not a technical one.

You see, companies are not required to include a gluten free label, this is always under their own free will. If they choose to do it in the US, Canada and EU, they must attach to the 20ppm rule. They are not required to say if their products do contain gluten, they will only do it if they choose to. What they are required to do is to include a list of ingredients, but are not forced to refference gluten directly.

The law also does not require manufacturers to test their final products in order to determine if they do comply to the 20ppm rule.

So if you find labels that say something like “processed in machinery that also processes wheat” or “it may contain what or gluten”, it is because the manufacturer chose to put those labels, not because it was required to do so. Every single control the manufacturer puts in their chain of manufacture and labeling its by its own free will and its commitment (or lack of) to its consumers, not because it is required to do it.

If you are like me, you probably thing that these rulings should be way more strict. In the end 20ppm is not really gluten free. It may be a small amount, but its not true gluten free. A gluten free label, should truly mean 100% free of gluten or 0ppm.

The problem here is that many companies complained that a 0ppm would be almost impossible to accomplish, because they have no control over their raw materials, and it would also  increase their costs of production because they would need to stop their machinery in order to wash it all periodically. In order to solve this costs problem, many companies have opted to create gluten free facilities, which is a great start, but I’ll talk about that later. This lead to the govenment to be flexible and to establish a “safe amount” of gluten. This obviously shows how laws are written to benefit companies and not the people, but this is an other subject which I will not get into.

What about “gluten free certified” foods?

A gluten free certification is an iniciative by different associations which has nothing to do with the “legal standards”. It aims to take the 20ppm rule above and beyond that. By doing so people should feel safe of consuming gluten free certified products.

How does it work?

A certification happens when a company or association competent enough to audit manufacturers processes, checks every single process the manufacturer uses, from getting raw materials to creating the final product and packing it. When the association believes that the processes are safe and the end result is a safe product, then they certify the manufacturer and its products as gluten free certified.

Usually a Gluten free certification implies 10ppm or less, which is half what the law requires. It all depends on which certification association issued the certificate. There are some, for example in Chile which require 3ppm or less.

Conclusion

Even if the products you are consuming claim to be “gluten free”, contrary to what you may believe, they are not 100% gluten free. There is no guarantee that any product containing theses labels will be 100% gluten free.

  1. In Mexico a gluten free product with no certification indicates that its ingredients may be free of gluten but doesn’t necessarily imply that the product is not cross contaminated. It may be following what the law says but not a technical procedure that warranties a gluten free process.
  2. A product coming from Canada, EU or EU that contains a gluten free label indicates que it contains 20ppm or less, which may be considered “safe”.
  3. A gluten free certified product, indicates that the product contains 10ppm or less which is “safer”.

So, the best practice is to consume gluten free certified products. Unless you are sure that a 20ppm ingest is safe for you.

If you realize that even 10ppm or less is enough to cause you harm, then forget about gluten free products, or even industrialized products. Make sure you eat as natural as possible and avoid any type of industrialized foods, or foods that come from any kind of packaging. The only packaging valid in your case would be the one nature intended: the peel of your fruits and vegetables.


I hope this information proves useful for you. Feel free to leave me a comment.

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