“Gluten-Free” Labeling – Feeding a Fad

By Emily Largent

As of August 5, 2014, all foods labeled “gluten-free” must meet the requirements of the gluten-free labeling final rule.  The rule implements a portion of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, Title II of Public Law 108-282, which directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to issue a regulation to define the term “gluten-free.”  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million for foods that carry the “gluten-free” label, which is the lowest level that can be reliably detected using scientifically validated analytical methods.

According to the FDA, the “final rule provides a uniform standard definition to help consumers with celiac disease manage a gluten-free diet.” Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten–a protein occurring in wheat, rye, and barley–that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine. This damage limits patients’ ability to absorb nutrients and can lead to a host of serious health problems. While there’s no cure for celiac disease, following a strict gluten-free diet can alleviate its symptoms. The new labeling requirements will surely give patients with celiac disease a powerful tool for managing their health, and has been lauded by patient advocacy organizations such as the American Celiac Disease Alliance.

Yet, folks with celiac disease won’t be the only ones keeping an eye on the new labels. While only three million Americans have celiac disease, avoiding gluten has become a food fad. Eleven-percent of households report that they buy gluten-free products, and almost a third of Americans report that they are trying to avoid gluten. Food producers feeding the growing appetite for gluten-free have put the gluten-free label on foods that never included gluten, like vegetables and yogurt. As a result, U.S. sales of foods labeled gluten-free (which may or may not have had gluten to begin with) have doubled to $23 billion in the past year from $11.5 billion four years ago.

Unfortunately, current research doesn’t support the numerous health claims that have been made about gluten-free diets. Moreover, buying gluten-free isn’t necessarily a healthier option—many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber, and more sugar.  It will be interesting to watch what happens to the sale of “gluten-free” foods as the gluten-free labeling final rule takes effect.

Emily Largent

Emily Largent

Emily Largent is an Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine. She also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania LawSchool. Her research examines ethical and regulatory issues arising in human subjects research and when integration of clinical research is integrated with clinical care; she has a particular focus on Alzheimer’s disease research. Emily received her PhD in Health Policy (Ethics) from Harvard and her JD from Harvard Law School. Prior to that, she received her BS in Nursing from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and completed a fellowship in the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health.

One thought to ““Gluten-Free” Labeling – Feeding a Fad”

  1. Why do the food items that have gluten-free label appear more healthy to the consumer? Is it because the packaging is different, or it is because they are more expensive, or is it is because they are usually carried by higher-end stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods?

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