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What Does Gluten-Free Actually Mean, Anyway?


It’s pretty hard to go to a grocery store or corner market and not see products that are labeled gluten-free. If you’re celiac like me or suffer from gluten intolerance, seeing this label more often probably makes you pretty happy. After all, more gluten-free labels mean more food options.

It seems that anything and everything is labeled gluten-free these days, doesn’t it? Crackers, mac and cheese, beer, pasta, and even water are just some of the grocery items bearing this wonderful little label. Whether you suffer from celiac disease or gluten intolerance, are avoiding gluten to maintain a healthier diet, or are just generally curious, the question remains the same: What does gluten-free actually mean?

Defining the Term “Gluten-Free” in Food

According to the FDA, a food can be labeled gluten-free if one of the following is true (Source):

  1. It is inherently gluten-free AND any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food is less than 20 ppm (parts per million)
  2. It contains a gluten-containing grain (wheat, rye, or barley, or a crossbreed like triticale) or an ingredient derived from a gluten-containing grain AND has been processed to contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten

This may seem confusing, and it is, especially for those of us who just want to be able to eat without having to worry about getting sick. To understand a little better, let’s talk about this rule that gluten-free food manufacturers are required to follow.

The Basics of the Gluten-Free Labeling Rule

The FDA announced their gluten-free labeling rule on August 2, 2013. The rule simply stated that in order for manufacturers to put a gluten-free label on their products, those products had to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten. The FDA urged manufacturers to follow the rule right away, but gave them until August 5th, 2014 to fully do so.

Items covered by the rule include any food products subject to FDA regulation, dietary supplements like vitamins, minerals, herbals, and amino acids), as well as any imported foods that are FDA-regulated. Items not covered include malted beverages that contain malted barley or hops, meat, poultry, unshelled eggs, and any other items that are regulated by the USDA, and distilled spirits and wines that have a alcohol content of 7% or more (by volume).

Trace Amounts of Gluten & the 20 PPM Rule

Many foods that bear the gluten-free label can contain as much as 20 parts per million of gluten, which is considered a trace amount. According to Dr. Amy Burkhart, the 20 ppm cutoff “is based on a study done in 2007 that showed this level to be safe for the majority of people with celiac disease” (Source).

If you’re anything like me, 20 ppm might leave you a little confused. It took me quite a while to figure out just what it meant for my diet and my body. To keep you in the know, below are some quick facts from the Gluten-Free Dietitian (Source):

  • 20 parts per million is the same as .002%, which is the same as 20 milligrams of gluten per 1 kilogram of food or 20 milligrams of gluten per 35.27 ounces of food
  • A 1-ounce (28.35 grams) slice of gluten-free bread containing 20 ppm of gluten would contain 0.57 milligrams of gluten
  • If you eat a diet containing 1,800 to 2,000 calories every day, you should eat 6 1-ounce grain equivalents; six ounces of grain food containing 20 ppm of gluten would contain 3.42 milligrams of gluten

While some products may contain up to 20 ppm of gluten, there is a wide range of others that may test to 10 ppm, 5 ppm, or even lower. Other products are certified gluten-free, and depending on which program has certified the products (either the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, or the Celiac Sprue Association), they will contain 5 ppm or 10 ppm.

Because we’re all different and our bodies respond to gluten in different ways, what makes one person feel sick, may not do the same to another person. The Center for Celiac Research states that “10 milligrams per day of gluten consumption is a safe levels for the vast majority of individuals with celiac disease … 10 milligrams is roughly the equivalent of one-eighth of a teaspoon of flour, or 18 slices of bread with each slice containing 20 ppm of gluten” (Source).

Product Examples

  • Amy’s Kitchen: Products include frozen meals, pizzas, soups, and snacks; the company-reported level is GF-20 (20 parts per million)
  • Boar’s Head: Products include cold cuts, hot dogs, lunch meets, and cheese; the company-reported level is GF-20 (20 parts per million)
  • BOLD Organics: Products include frozen pizzas; the company is certified by the CSA, and has a level of GF-5 (5 parts per million)
  • Ener-G: Products include flours, breads, various mixes, cereal, and cookies; the company reported level is GF-5 (5 parts per million)
  • Rudi’s Gluten-Free: Products include breads, tortillas, and rolls; the company is certified by the GFCO, and has a level of GF-10 (10 parts per million)

A more extensive list can be found here.

The Bottom Line

Manufacturers of gluten-free food products regularly test their products to maintain compliance with the 20 ppm rule, and many products test below that limit. However, if you find that a product with 20 ppm of gluten is still making you feel sick, it might be a good idea to avoid it. A lower trace amount may not affect you, but it all depend on your level of sensitivity.

Many people prefer the limit be set at 10 ppm or 5 ppm. What are your thoughts? Do you react to foods containing 20 ppm? We’d love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment below!