Under an FDA rule announced Friday, products 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.
People who suffer from celiac disease don't absorb nutrients well and can get sick from the gluten found in wheat and other cereal grains. Other countries already have similar standards.
Celiac disease affects up to 3 million Americans. It causes abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea, and people who have it can suffer weight loss, fatigue, rashes and other long-term medical problems. Celiac is a diagnosed illness that is more severe than gluten sensitivity, which some people self-diagnose.
Only a very small number of people wouldn't be able to ingest the amount of gluten that will be allowed under the new rule, FDA officials said.
"Adherence to a gluten-free diet is the key to treating celiac disease, which can be very disruptive to everyday life," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said. "The FDA's new 'gluten-free' definition will help people with this condition make food choices with confidence and allow them to better manage their health."
The rule would also ensure that foods with the labels "no gluten," "free of gluten," and "without gluten" meet the definition. Manufacturers will have a year to comply, but the FDA urged companies to meet the definition sooner.
Image: Gluten free sign, via Shutterstock