Interestingly, low-protein wheat flour and wheat starch claiming to be gluten free are available commercially. With the new ruling, manufacturers need to ensure that their products contain no more than 20 PPM gluten. Detecting amounts beyond these limits could lead to a misbranded product. The reasoning for a 20 PPM limitation is still too stringent, however, and may be the result of the availability of better technologies than are required for practical purposes. Time and further studies will reveal whether or not this is the case.
CD is diagnosed when an individual affected by its symptoms consumes a diet that contains gluten over a period of time. No literature or studies have found proof that the disease manifests in patients who consume diets containing low PPM levels. It is possible that the FDA, as a regulatory agency, would err on the side of excess caution in adhering to the 20 PPM standard. The food industry has experienced this response in other instances, such as when hazard analysis and critical control point regulations called for a zero fecal tolerance limit. This was a significant requirement for meat packers. Slaughterhouses were forced to perform correctly in a very short span of time, and many could not comply. But, over time, the outcome of new regulations has generally been beneficial, as well as an eye opener for consumers and the food industry. Few companies were shut down due to management’s inability to comply with the zero fecal contamination regulation.
Gluten-free standards must be developed with prudence and practicality to ensure, first and foremost, that consumers are protected but also that requirements are prudent. The potential benefits from a gluten-free requirement are fewer product recalls, less brand degeneration, and fewer lost customers.
As knowledge about CD increases, the market for gluten-free products will increase. Consumers already pay a premium for these products, making them a very attractive offering. Even mainstream retailers are dedicating separate shelves for special needs, targeting those who are looking for gluten-free products.
In the near term, regulatory bodies should work for better requirement definitions, and industry groups should come to a consensus on proposed definitions. This increase in structure will force manufacturers to adhere to the same standards and define their plants’ risk levels on an even basis. Such demarcation will help retailers to choose high quality vendors and will provide consumers with a better understanding of the products they are considering for purchase, so that they can decide whether they are willing to pay the premium.
The demand for food technologists who specialize in developing new gluten-free products will increase. These specialists will need to come up with innovative products without jeopardizing taste and product aesthetics.
Patty Stewart is the president of Whole Bakers, which manufactures a line of high quality gluten-free cookies. After being diagnosed with CD, Stewart founded the company when she discovered the need for great tasting gluten-free foods. “People with CD have to be extremely careful about what they buy for meals, what they purchase at grocery stores, what they eat at restaurants, etc.,” she says. Few of the supposedly gluten-free products that are currently on the market maintain certificates of gluten-free manufacturing that assure no reactions, Stewart explains. “Checking labels for gluten free is important, but checking labels for ‘certified gluten free’ is even more important,” she says. “In order to stay well, people with CD must avoid gluten for the rest of their lives.”
As an industry, we have an obligation to help people with CD know for sure they are doing just that.
Dr. Veeramuthu is vice president of quality assurance at PacMoore Products, Inc. He can be reached at (219) 932-2666 or email@example.com.
- United States Food and Drug Administration. Food labeling; gluten-free labeling of foods. Proposed rule. Federal Register Vol. 72, No. 14. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2007. Available at: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~acrobat/fr070123.pdf. Accessed December 9, 2008.
- Pietrzak MM, Catassi C, Drago S, et al. Celiac disease: going against the grains. Nutr Clin Pract. 2001;16(6):335-344.
- Ciclitira P. Guidelines for the management of patients with coeliac disease. Gut. 1996; 39(Suppl 2):I-V.