Kristine Kidd, a cookbook writer and chef who has celiac disease, says a new federal rule to define gluten free on food packages will make “life a lot less confusing for people.”
And there is more than enough confusion to go around.
Kidd recently gave the newly gluten-free, 97-year-old mother of a friend a “mini-lesson” in eating gluten free, and the woman found the prospect of shopping too difficult.
“She is having such a struggle understanding what is gluten-free,” says Kidd, the author of “Weeknight Gluten Free.”
“And labels change,” she says. As careful as she is, Kidd says she noticed that she wasn’t feeling great. She finally tracked the problem to a chocolate bar that she’d been eating for years without incident. Production had changed, and the chocolate was now being made in a place that also makes products with gluten.
“For people who are less food-astute than me, I think reading labels is more difficult,” she says.
On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration took a step to ease the difficulty by issuing a final rule that sets out a standard of 20 parts per million in foods that say they are gluten-free.
Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye -- and in many processed foods that are not so obvious, including sauces, packaged entrees, flavorings.
In people with celiac disease, foods that contain gluten trigger production of antibodies that attack and damage the lining of the small intestine. Such damage limits the ability of celiac disease patients to absorb nutrients and puts them at risk of other very serious health problems, including nutritional deficiencies, osteoporosis, growth retardation, infertility, miscarriages, short stature and intestinal cancers.
“We have to be able to eat safely and know we can trust the products,” says Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness in Philadelphia.
Bast had three miscarriages and a full-term stillbirth before she learned, 22 years ago, that she had celiac disease and that her reproductive issues might be related to it.
Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-New York) called the FDA rule a victory; she wrote the law that will cover the term gluten-free. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, written by Lowey and signed into law in 2004, requires that allergens such as peanuts and milk be noted on food labels.
“It’s a long time in the making and it’s a thrill for me that this finally came through,” Lowey said by phone Monday.
She also is cosponsor of the Gluten in Medicine Disclosure Act, which would require medicine and pharmaceutical manufacturers to disclose on labels whether a medication contains gluten.
For those who must be most careful, there are medicines, children’s molding clays and other items with gluten. Kids can’t have lotion on their hands that contains gluten, because they so often put their hands in their mouths, Bast said.
A much wider group of people attribute skin and respiratory problems, “brain fog” and digestive issues to gluten intolerance. Gluten, they say, keeps them from “optimal health.” Eating gluten-free has also -- much to the chagrin of many people -- become something of a fad. Marketing research suggests that about a third of Americans are trying to cut down or eliminate the gluten in their diets.
“Since when did the treatment for a serious autoimmune disease become the next weight loss diet?” asks Bast.
On the upside, the faddishness has increased the number of products on store shelves, and it has raised awareness, says Carol Shilson, executive director of the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago -- where an international symposium on the subject is planned in September.
Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer for Chicago-based Enjoy Life Foods, says the rule will give consumers additional assurance about their foods.
“There have been many companies that label their products gluten-free, and without regulations there have been questions about whether they really were,” he said Monday. For example, he said, products are sometimes labeled as being made with gluten-free ingredients. That does not make them gluten-free to someone who has celiac disease.
Enjoy Life tests its products to 10 parts per million, so its practices won’t change as a result of the FDA action, he said. Indeed, he says it was the first company to be certified by the private Gluten Free Certification Organization.
@mmacvean on Twitter