Defining Gluten-Free: An FDA Conundrum

What does it mean to be gluten-free?  That is the question the Food and Drug Administration has been trying to answer since 2004.  This was the year Congress gave the FDA 4 years to come up with an answer.  Seven years later and three years overdue, there is still no set definition defining a gluten-free product.

As the FDA lingers, foodmakers are cashing in.  The U.S. gluten-free product industry has grown from $100 million in 2003 to a current $2.6 billion.  To market your product free of gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye and barley), has become almost trendy at this point.  Some companies have even gone as far as labeling bottled water gluten-free.  While most products labeled gluten-free do indeed contain no gluten, others might have a trace or sizable amount.  As The Washington Post explains, some companies “might fail to test their products or might allow small amounts of gluten but still label their foods as gluten-free.”  Therein lies the problem.

Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, afflicts about 3 million people in the United States.  Individuals who suffer from celiac disease have symptoms that can include gastrointestinal distress, infertility, anemia, and nerve damage. The solution: avoid even the smallest amount of gluten.  Which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds considering gluten is commonly found in unexpected products, such as ketchup, soy sauce, and dried seasonings (not to mention non-food products like lipstick, sunscreen, and toothpaste).  It’s no surprise then that celiac rates are rising in the United States, while an additional 18 million individuals currently suffer from gluten-sensitivity, which means that they, too, are sickened by the protein and can experience frequent abdominal distress, fatigue, and headaches.

Tomorrow, the world’s largest gluten-free cake will be brought to Capitol Hill in hopes of speeding up the decision-making process.  Reaching a definitive answer will not only enforce foodmakers to label their products correctly, it will ensure millions suffering from the disease piece of mind and health.

* Though the FDA has no set definition, it does offer a FAQ page about gluten-free labeling.



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