Why 'Gluten-Free' Foods May Contain Gluten

Advocates insist FDA guidelines are not strict enough

Tray of gluten free pastries.
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When does "gluten-free" not mean gluten-free? For most of us, that would translate to meaning no gluten, right? For official as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it means something slightly different. According to their current guidelines, "gluten-free" is defined as any packaged food product that contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.

While that sounds like a pretty small amount, what does it actually mean?

Understanding the FDA Gluten-Free Label Rules

The FDA gluten-free label rules were based on a review of clinical research which suggested that the majority of people with celiac disease could tolerate this level of gluten with symptoms or injury to their gastrointestinal tract.

In order for a manufacturer to declare its product gluten-free, the FDA has determined that it cannot contain any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains (including spelled or Einkorn wheat) unless it has been processed to remove gluten and contains less than 20 ppm total.

These included ingredients derived from gluten grains which have processed to remove gluten, including wheat germ oil, wheat grass, barley grass, and barley-based enzymes.

FDA Ruling Raises Concern

Adherence to FDA labeling is strictly voluntary and is not subject to ongoing inspections to ensure the regulatory standards are met. With that being said, most studies suggest around 95 percent of manufacturers to comply with the guidelines.

If a product is misbranded as being either "gluten-free," "free of gluten," "without gluten," or "gluten-removed," the manufacturer of that product could be subject to harsh regulatory action by the FDA.

While that should provide some assurance to consumers, many advocates complain that gluten threshold is not enough. They point to studies that have shown that people with celiac disease can still get sick when eating far less than 20 ppm and believe that "gluten-free" should be defined as having an undetectable amount of gluten (meaning that the level is so low as to avoid detection by current testing technologies).

Moreover, they argue that there have yet to study ​the effects of gluten in persons with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

What This Means to the Consumer

In the end, if you can already eat most products labeled gluten-free, it is unlikely that any containing a tad over 20 ppm will hurt you.

On the other hand, if you have high levels of gluten intolerance and react to even the tiniest trace of gluten, you would need to take more aggressive steps when choosing products.

One way to do so is by buying products that are certified gluten-free. Unlike many manufacturers, these companies have voluntarily welcomed inspection of their food by one of three certifying organizations: the Gluten Intolerance Group's Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), the Allergen Control Group/Canadian Celiac Association (ACG/CCA), and the Celiac Support Association (CSA).

Both the GFCO and the ACG/CCA require foods to have less to 20 ppm of glutens, while the CSA holds their manufacturers to a far higher standard with a baseline of less than five ppm.

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View Article Sources
  • Thompson, T. and Simpson, S. "A Comparison of Gluten Levels in Labeled Gluten-Free and Certified Gluten-Free Foods Sold in the United States." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015; 69(1):143-46.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "'Gluten-Free' Now Means What It Says." Silver Spring, Maryland; issued August 5, 2014.