Says Who? Gluten-Free Standards Are Not So Standard After All

A little pop quiz to begin the holiday weekend.
1. What is the Codex Alimentarius?
a) It’s the spell Harry used to fight the dementors, right?
b) Oh, I saw one of those at the zoo last week. They’re cute!
c) A joint effort by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) and the WHO (World Health Organization) to develop global food standards.
2. Why should I care?
a) One day, I might be on Jeopardy and this question might come up.
b) I shouldn’t; I’ve got enough other stuff to worry about.
c) If we’re ever going to have international gluten-free standards, they’re going to come from these people.
3. Wait, gluten-free can mean more than one thing?!
a) Yes.

Just in case you didn’t pick up on it, the answers to numbers one and two are (c). Now, let me say the answer to number three again, because it’s important:

There is no globally-recognized or enforced standard for foods that are labeled “gluten-free.” In fact, there is also no legally defined gluten-free standard within the USA.


The Codex Alimentarius sets gluten-free standards in two parts.

  1. The first covers foods made without gluten-containing ingredients, and sets a gluten threshold of 20ppm (parts per million, or mg/kg). This means that a very, very small amount of gluten can in fact be present in foods that are labeled gluten-free; as the science improves and ever-tinier amounts of gluten can be reliably tested for, the gluten-free threshold will likely continue to lower.
  2. The second covers foods made with gluten-containing ingredients that have been specially modified to reduce the amount of gluten within them. This category includes foods made with ingredients like “gluten-free wheat,” which you’ll generally not see from US manufacturers, and these items can contain up to 100ppm of gluten. While the Codex states that these foods must not be labeled gluten-free, and “should indicate the true nature of the food,” discretion is ultimately left to each individual country. If you encounter a phrase like “low-gluten” on a label, this is likely the cause.

Within the US, the FDA has issued a recommended gluten-free standard of 20ppm, but hasn’t yet finalized this definition. This leaves manufacturers – and the USDA – in a sticky situation. A number of organizations have sprung up to issue their own definitions and to offer certification to complying manufacturers – most of us have seen or purchased items approved by various nongovernmental organizations. If you’re looking for more detail, Living Without recently published a great article on national gluten-free standards.

In Europe, the EU has issued guidelines, to be enforced by 2012, which hew closely to Codex standards. Many countries, including Canada and Argentina, have even stricter gluten-free standards. Oats remain a gray area internationally, considered gluten-free in some countries and not in others.

What does this mean for you and me? Essentially, it means that we just have to continue paying attention. For now, be alert when you are purchasing foods manufactured in another country (whether you are buying them abroad or at home). And don’t forget to read the ingredients: a simple step, but one that can save you a lot of unpleasantness.

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