PhotoGluten is one of those things a growing number of consumers want to avoid. It should be a little easier to do so under a new rule issued by the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA's new rule defines what characteristics a food has to have to bear a label that proclaims it "gluten-free." The rule also holds foods labeled "without gluten," "free of gluten," and "no gluten" to the same standard.

This rule has been eagerly awaited by advocates for people with celiac disease, who face potentially life-threatening illnesses if they eat the gluten found in breads, cakes, cereals, pastas and many other foods.

“Today’s announcement is important to millions of families and individuals allergic to gluten. Shopping at the grocery store should not be an anxiety producing experience for parents with children who require gluten-free food," said Rep. Jim Moran, a Northern Virginia Democrat who has been urging the FDA to impose labeling requirements on gluten-free food since 2011. "Today’s announcement should bring greater peace of mind for millions of Americans. I look forward to a year from today when the shelves of grocery stores will have clear, accurate labels.”

Celiac disease is more common that you might think. An estimated 1 in 133 people are afflicted with celiac disease, and another 18 million Americans may be gluten-intolerant. That's why the food industry has put such emphasis on coming up with gluten-free alternatives, and why the FDA has tightened up the labeling requirements.

As one of the criteria for using the claim "gluten-free," FDA is setting a gluten limit of less than 20 ppm (parts per million) in foods that carry this label. This is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools. Also, most people with celiac disease can tolerate foods with very small amounts of gluten. This level is consistent with those set by other countries and international bodies that set food safety standards.

Eliminate uncertainty

"This standard 'gluten-free' definition will eliminate uncertainty about how food producers label their products and will assure people with celiac disease that foods labeled 'gluten-free' meet a clear standard established and enforced by FDA," says Michael R. Taylor, J.D., deputy FDA commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.

PhotoAndrea Levario, executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance, notes that there is no cure for celiac disease and the only way to manage the disease is dietary—not eating gluten. Without a legal definition of "gluten-free," these consumers could never really be sure if their body would tolerate a food with that label, she adds.

"This is a tool that has been desperately needed," Levario says. "It keeps food safe for this population, gives them the tools they need to manage their health, and obviously has long-term benefits for them."

"Without proper food labeling regulation, celiac patients cannot know what the words 'gluten free' mean when they see them on a food label," said Allessio Fasano, M.D., director of the Center for Celiac Research at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, visiting professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and member of the American Celiac Disease Alliance.

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and spelt that gives dough its elasticity, helps it to rise, and keep its shape. It’s because of gluten that baked goods have their characteristic texture, strength and crumb structure.

A gluten-free diet usually contains more fresh produce and that usually is a healthy improvement. If someone eats more varieties of vegetables and fruits and engages in portion control of other foods, then this type of gluten-free living may elicit health benefits, experts say.

If you don't have celiac disease, gluten won't hurt you and, in fact, is a good source of fiber. If you have any questions or concerns, you should discuss them with your doctor.

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