Some foods that don’t appear to contain wheat or gluten based on their ingredient list may still have trace amounts of these ingredients, a company-funded study suggests.
Researchers tested 101 foods sold in the U.S. that didn’t include ingredients known to contain gluten, such as wheat, barley, rye, malt or brewer’s yeast. These foods were not labeled "gluten-free". However, consumers might assume they were gluten-free, because gluten-containing substances weren't on the ingredient list.
Some of the products did have warning labels suggesting they might contain gluten. Among the 87 products that didn’t have such advisory warnings, however, 13 items, or 15 percent, tested positive for gluten.
The tests were done through Gluten Free Watchdog, a company that charges monthly subscription fees for gluten testing reports.
Allergen advisory statements voluntary in U.S.
The study sheds light on the limits of so-called allergy advisory statements, voluntary information on U.S. food labels that notes, for example, when foods are processed in the same facility as wheat or nuts.
In the U.S., allergen advisory statements are voluntary and not currently defined by federal regulations. Some manufacturers use these statements to alert consumers to processing practices that may result in cross contact with allergens, but many manufacturers do not.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines require packaged foods labeled “gluten-free” to contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. The goal of these rules is to limit gluten exposure for people with celiac disease.
The current study looked at a variety of grocery items including cereals, spices, teas, candy, beverages and baked goods.
The study is small, and the findings are not representative of all foods sold in U.S. stores, the authors note. It’s also impossible to tell where in the food production line these foods were contaminated with gluten.
In addition, the study lacks data on how consumers might interpret the information on food labels.
When consumers see “gluten-free” they can trust that means no more gluten than allowed by the FDA.
However, the precautionary label statements ‘may contain...’ do provide uncertainties for consumers as regulations do not currently exist to ensure standardization.
Some products that tested positive for gluten in the study contained oats, which can be contaminated with wheat or barley at the agricultural level, during farming or in grain elevators.
Spices and teas also tested positive for gluten, and these items are often imported from countries that don’t have stringent standards for gluten contamination. For these products, though, consumers are unlikely to use enough at one time to have an allergic reaction.
Gluten-free labels can be relied upon
Gluten-sensitive consumers should rely on products with gluten-free labels. They should be careful about grain-based foods that have no gluten-free statement.
Although people with allergies and sensitivities might not be affected by tiny amounts of gluten, people with celiac disease can still be harmed by it. Some may not feel sick when they eat foods with trace amounts of gluten, but long-term exposure can still lead to intestinal damage.
Source: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online September 14.
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