Let's say you're in the market for a new car. Instead of going through the normal channels of a Honda or Toyota or Dodge dealership, you go to a small, independent car manufacturer named, oh, let's say "Fraunch."
Now the thing with Fraunch is that they offer moderately-priced cars that look fine from the outside -- you're not going to be laughed off the street driving one -- but they do so without ever having to pass the standard minimum safety requirements required by the U.S. government. They were grandfathered in because Mr. Fraunch cut a deal with President Taft back in 1908 or something. So the only "guarantee" you have that it'll get you from point A to point B without leaving your body a mangled mess on the side of the road is the Fraunch salesperson shaking your hand, looking you dead in the eye, and saying "I promise."
That wouldn't really pass muster, would it?
Yet that's essentially been the way that "gluten free" labels have been working for the past decade. Since the label first started worming its way through the grocery store aisles -- sometimes to legitimately help those with celiac disease, sometimes to just carve out a slice of the latest health food trend -- there's been no oversight for how much gluten is contained in food labeled "gluten free" other than the manufacturers saying "we promise."
The FDA, after six years of quiet contemplation -- which I like to envision taking place in a mountainous meditation resort with a trickling stream offering soothing sounds and a sherpa in the corner playing a didgeridoo -- they've decided to step in and put together a set of specific guidelines for what "gluten free" actually means:
[P]roducts labeled "gluten free" still won't have to be technically free of wheat, rye and barley and their derivatives. But they almost will: "Gluten-free" products will have to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. That amount is generally recognized by the medical community to be low enough that most people who have celiac disease won't get sick if they eat it.
The reason that a certain amount of gluten will be allowed in foods at all? That's the "lowest level that can be consistently detected using valid analytical tools," according to Science Recorder. So, the new standard will really be as good as it gets until additional technology allows for an improvement.
Food manufacturers have one year to comply with the new definition, meaning by August 5th of next year you can actually trust the labels. And if nefarious underhanded folks are caught sneaking in an extra few parts per million of gluten? They'll be subject to strict regulatory actions that come with misbranding an item.
Which isn't to say that the current slate of "gluten free" items available for purchase are riddled with factual inaccuracies. According to FDA stats, 95% of what's out there now on the market already meet the 20 ppm threshold. It's just that next year, finally, we'll have more than just their word to rely on.
So, feel free to continue making your "gluten free" purchases in the meantime. But as I've stated before, just make sure you're picking them up for the right reasons and not simply because you want to hop on the latest fad diet. The price difference between normal and "gluten free" items is significant enough that you better make sure you're in it for more than just the label.
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