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Label Lore

Sure, the package says gluten free, but what does that really mean?

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Today, more foods than ever are being labeled “gluten-free.” But did you know that there’s no official definition of “gluten-free” approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? At least not yet.

The FDA is expected to issue final guidelines on gluten-free labeling later this year. That’s a welcome development, but it’s not the end. You might think that it will make it easier for us to pick foods that are completely devoid of gluten. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that. For the sake of your health, it’s important to understand the issues behind the label.

Setting the Bar

In January 2007, the FDA proposed a rule for gluten-free labeling-foods can be marketed as gluten-free if they contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. After four years of inactivity, the FDA reopened a 60-day comment period in autumn 2011 to get feedback on the guidelines.

Hundreds of people wrote in. Some urged the FDA to revise the 20 ppm standard to as low as 5 ppm. Even one of the FDA’s own reports noted that some people with celiac disease can have adverse effects from ingesting much lower amounts than 20 ppm.

Unfortunately, there is limited research and much uncertainty about the threshold of gluten toxicity. And the FDA’s final labeling decision isn’t going to change that, no matter what standard the agency chooses.

On the Lookout

So if you think that you’re especially sensitive to gluten, what should you do? Here are some guidelines:

  • Look for products certified by celiac organizations. The Celiac Sprue Association, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness/Quality Assurance International, and the Gluten Intolerance Group certify foods that test below 5 or 10 ppm-much stricter standards than the FDA’s. For details, see;;; and
  • Understand that “gluten-free” doesn’t mean eat with abandon. Though most manufacturers are adhering to the FDA’s proposed guidelines, that still means that foods labeled “gluten-free” could contain up to 20 ppm gluten. If sensitive people eat several such foods throughout the day, the cumulative effect could be too much for them and make them sick.
    To err on the side of caution, limit gluten-free packaged foods, and pick and choose the ones you buy carefully.
  • Watch out for gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that nine out of 22 inherently gluten-free products, such as corn and millet, contained mean levels of gluten from 8.5-2,925 ppm. And 32 percent of naturally gluten-free grains and flours contained gluten in amounts greater than 20 ppm. Given these findings, the article concluded that “gluten contamination of inherently gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours is a legitimate concern.” To protect yourself, look for products that are processed in dedicated gluten-free facilities and batch tested for gluten.
  • Focus your diet on fresh fruits and vegetables and unprocessed meat and fish. These naturally gluten-free foods are the best ways to completely avoid unwanted gluten.Melissa Diane Smith, a nutritionist who specializes in personalizing the gluten-free diet, offers long-distance telephone counseling and coaching services to clients internationally. She is the author of Going Against the Grain and Gluten Free Throughout the Year: A Two-Year, Month-to-Month Guide for Healthy Eating. To learn about her online Going Against the Grain Group or her free newsletter, visit For info about her books and her long-distance consultations and nutrition coaching programs, visit

Banana Walnut Pancakes
Makes 10 Pancakes

On a cold weekend morning, warm yourself up with these hearty, grain-free, sugar-free pancakes. Serve plain; with extra walnuts and mashed bananas; or with organic butter, a dab of pure maple syrup, and cinnamon. Add gluten-free pork or turkey sausage to the meal to make a brunch.

2 large organic eggs

½ organic banana

½ cup unsweetened almond milk or unsweetened coconut milk

1½ tsp. gluten-free vanilla extract or vanilla flavor

1½ cups blanched almond flour

1½ tsp. arrowroot powder

½ tsp. unrefined sea salt

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

½ cup chopped walnuts

Organic extra virgin coconut oil

  1. Mix eggs, banana, almond milk, and vanilla together in medium bowl. In separate bowl, mix almond flour, arrowroot, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon. Combine dry ingredients with wet. Finely mince walnuts, and mix them into batter.
  2. Heat coconut oil in large skillet over medium-low heat. Drop slightly less than ¼ cup batter into pan, and spread batter slightly for each pancake. Flip pancakes when bottoms have browned, about 3-4 minutes, and cook 1-2 minutes more, until desired doneness. Add more oil to pan, and repeat with remaining batter.

PER SERVING: 172 cal; 6g pro; 15g total fat (3g sat fat); 7g carb; 37mg chol; 169mg sod; 2g fiber; 2g sugars

* Recipe reprinted from the Going Against the Grain Group, 2011.

Copyright ©2012 Melissa Diane Smith. This article and recipe may not be reprinted on other sites without written approval and permission from the author. For more information, please email