If you or your kids need to avoid gluten for health or other reasons, grocery shopping is likely to become that much easier for you. Gluten, which refers to certain types of proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains, is found in a wide variety of foods. Although more and more so-called "gluten-free" foods have lined store shelves to meet growing demand for such foods in recent years, up until now there was no standard definition for foods making a "gluten-free" claim. But thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), you no longer need to be Sherlock Holmes when searching for "gluten-free" options.
A new regulation mandates that FDA-regulated foods and dietary supplements that claim to be "gluten-free" meet all requirements of the definition which includes containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten. Similarly, food and supplement manufacturers that want to claim "no gluten," "free of gluten," and "without gluten" on packaging must also comply with the new regulation. All have until August 5, 2014 to make sure their labeling is in sync with these new rules.
In a statement issued by the national Celiac Disease Foundation, Chief Executive Officer Marilyn Geller welcomed the move as something sure to benefit those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. "We applaud the FDA for ensuring that food products labeled gluten-free will be safe for consumption," she said.
Those who shun gluten in an attempt to lose weight (not that doing so is nutritionally ideal or has proven to be effective for that purpose) are likely to be happy as well with the new ruling. According to the market research firm SPINS, gluten-free sales during the 52 weeks leading up to August 4, 2012 totaled $12.4 billion—18% higher than sales the previous year. I have no doubt that consumer demand for everything gluten-free will continue to climb.
According to Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian nutritionist and gluten-related disorders expert, having credible "gluten-free" labels is a necessity for parents and kids who need that assurance that the foods they choose are safe for consumption. Begun also says that having standardized "gluten-free" labels will be particularly reassuring for parents of older kids who increasingly make food purchases on their own.
When asked if she noticed any holes in the new "gluten-free" regulations, Begun notes that foods regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—meat, poultry, and certain egg products—aren't currently covered. She suggests looking for the USDA inspection mark to distinguish between FDA- and USDA-regulated products.
Begun also notes a few important things for parents to keep in mind about the new regulations. "The statements "made with no gluten-containing ingredients" and "not made with gluten-containing ingredients" are allowed on food labels, but do NOT have to comply with gluten-free labeling rules unless they also make a "gluten-free" claim," she says. She also warns that there are some products accurately labeled "gluten-free" that may contain the word "wheat" in the ingredients statement. She says, "This happens when the wheat ingredient has been processed in a way that allows it to meet the gluten-free labeling requirements." In these cases, she says the word "wheat" will be followed by an asterisk and include the statement, "The wheat has been processed to allow this food to meet the Food and Drug Administration requirements for gluten-free foods."
Begun says it's important for consumers to understand that making a "gluten-free" claim is voluntary. "There may be inherently gluten-free foods that are at very low risk for contamination. Just because a food doesn't contain a "gluten-free" claim does not mean that it is unsafe," she says.
All this talk of gluten may make you wonder if your child should eat a gluten-free diet, even if he or she doesn't have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. According to Begun, "There is no evidence to show that simply removing gluten from the diet is better for health. In addition, the typical gluten-free diet is often lacking in key nutrients such as iron, calcium, fiber and B vitamins." Because many kids already have restricted diets because they're picky eaters or are being treated for other medical conditions, Begun warns against unnecessarily restricting kids' diets even more. She adds, "I recommend gluten-free diets for children only when it is medically necessary."
Jessica Corwin, MPH, RDN agrees. "Just because a food is marked with a bright shiny "gluten-free" label doesn't mean that it is better for you or your kids—in fact, such a claim often means it is more heavily processed and less nutrient-rich," she says. Corwin also points out that while wheat flour is fortified with essential micronutrients such as folic acid, "gluten-free" versions such as rice or potato flour may not be–meaning you and your little ones may be missing out when eating foods made with these flours. She adds, "Processed gluten-free foods are often higher in calories as extra fats and sugars are frequently used to make up for the change in flavor and texture."
And, if you're looking for a delicious gluten-free cupcake recipe, try this one:
Gluten-Free Goodness Cupcakes
Prep 25 mins Bake 400°F, 13 to 17 minutes
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. Combine rice flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and 6 tablespoons sugar with a mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla extract, then add flour mixture alternately with milk until just blended.
2. Divide batter among prepared liners. bake in the center of the oven 13 to 17 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.
3. Combine egg whites, 1 cup sugar, corn syrup, the water, and cream of tartar in a deep bowl. Place bowl over a saucepan filled with 1 inch of simmering water. (The bowl should not touch the water.) Beat with a hand mixer for 10 minutes, so that egg whites are heated to a safe temperature. Spoon into pastry bag with a plain 1/2-inch tip and pipe onto cupcakes. Sprinkle nonpareils around the rim.
Image at top of dietary warning or gluten/wheat allergy warning via Shutterstock.