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Going Gluten-FreeMarch 8, 2010

Understanding Gluten-Free Labeling

I was diagnosed with celiac disease in the spring of 2005. While it wasn’t quite the dark ages of celiac—I had access to a grocery store with gluten-free flours and a few specialty items, like gluten-free pasta and crackers—I still had to slog through plenty of dense food labels, using a cheat sheet in the beginning. With the help of a dietitian, I eventually committed to memory the countless unsafe ingredients. But just a few months after my diagnosis, things changed dramatically.

Sweeping legislation known as FALCPA, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which required clear labeling of the top eight allergens, including wheat, went into effect. My dietitian said this legislation would be huge for celiacs—we'd no longer have to dissect a label for potential sources of wheat. When present, it would be plainly listed as 'wheat.' According to celiac nutrition expert, Shelley Case, RD, author of Gluten-Free Diet, it’s estimated that about 90 to 95 percent of the gluten in the North American diet comes from wheat.

When I started to see the labeling change—it took the better part of 2006 for most products on store shelves to be replaced with new labeling—it was clear that, compared to celiacs diagnosed years earlier, I had it pretty good. Most of the work—90 to 95 percent of it—was now done for me.

But what about that other 5 to 10 percent?

It turns out that final 5 to 10 percent—mostly rye, barley and their derivatives—is easy to spot. According to Case, rye is used infrequently, mostly just in rye bread and rye crackers. In such cases, the label will indicate rye flour. Barley can be a bit trickier since derivatives of barley, such as barley malt or barley malt extract, are used as crisping agents or flavorings. However, when barley is used, it’s almost always declared as barley malt flavoring, barley malt extract, or barley malt in the ingredient list. A few years ago, Case did find barley malt declared as “flavoring” in a soy beverage. But this drink identifies it as “barley malt flavoring” on its label now.

While I appreciate that my label-reading burden has been slashed post-FALCPA (a good thing since I grocery shop with a toddler these days), I'm looking forward to things getting even better for celiacs. There's reason to hope. The second phase of FALCPA, the part that specifically deals with the term ‘gluten free,’ hasn’t been rolled out yet. Although it's delayed, it will be implemented eventually. When that finally happens, it will be a huge step for celiacs.

Note: FALCPA rules only apply to FDA-regulated foods. USDA regulated foods—meat, poultry, eggs—are not subject to FALCPA, although USDA has indicated it intends to mirror FDA’s allergen labeling standards.

For more detailed information on gluten-free labeling, click here to read my article from the April/May 2010 issue of Living Without.

Comments (8)

Debbie, I really like your ideas. I'm going to try some of those...thank you!

Posted by: Elgie | March 23, 2010 7:48 AM    Report this comment

Corn shows up in a lot of places as "corn starch" and a lot of GF products include potato starch. Living Without food editor Beth Hillson recommends replacing any starch that is a problem with one which is not...that could be arrowroot, tapioca starch or potato starch (if corn is the problem) or corn starch (if potato is the problem.) Frequently she recommends a blend of starches because they each have a slightly different taste or mouth feel. As she always says, the journey is half the fun. And while experimenting can be expensive at first, once you find a substitute that works for you, stick with it.

Posted by: LW Moderator | March 14, 2010 10:06 AM    Report this comment

Making my own bread and muffins has turned out to be very rewarding and tasty. Many of my old recipes work with blends of "all purpose "gluten free flours so I don't have to buy 5 kinds and mix them which is very expensive. For a yeast substitute I use xanthan gum in addition to whatever baking soda or baking powder they call for. 1 tsp for small recipes like 6 muffins, and 2 tsp for 1 loaf of bread. Quick breads like banana nut or cranberry adapt better than highly raised breads which never come out very big. I think it's because flours made from beans, rice, tapioca, millet and potato are just naturally heavier and denser. I also encourage everyone to find colorful and creative recipes that have nothing to do with wheat substitutes.There are so many beautiful salads and vegetable dishes to enjoy-stay as close to nature as you can and cook from the produce section of the store.

Posted by: noglutenplz | March 14, 2010 7:26 AM    Report this comment

My daughter's diagnosis was confirmed in December. She has been gluten free since then. She felt better immediately but now we think it is something else too! How did you find out each allerg, dairy, corn, yeast, chocolate? (She also is allergic to beef, she carries an epee pen as a result of that allergy!)

Posted by: Carol l | March 11, 2010 2:16 PM    Report this comment

I've been eating gluten free, dairy free, corn free, yeast free, and (sadly) chocolate free since 2003. One of my concerns is the inclusion of corn, cornstarch, corn syrup, and yeast in so many Gluten Free recipes and products. I know to substitute Arrowroot in place of cornstarch in recipes; but what do I use in place of yeast and in what proportion? Also, as corn is such a high allergen, why is it in so many of Living Without recipes?

Posted by: Frances E B | March 11, 2010 11:11 AM    Report this comment

What about food starch modified, or just food starch? I used to find this was frequently from barley and not labeled as such. Now many manufacturers have changed over to corn and potato, but some still claim (such as Ore-Ida as of about 1 year ago) that it can be a gluten source and they never know when it might be.

Posted by: Lisa C | March 11, 2010 8:57 AM    Report this comment

I have been involved in avoiding both gluten and dairy in the diet of my family for over 25 years so I have seen a huge amount of progress. In the old days the labels gave almost no information at all and gluten and dairy free substitutes were either impossible to find or tasted terrible. My grown kids have memories of those days and are now very grateful for the new flour mixes and the many healthy alternatives that are readily available. Progress may be slow but it does seem to be coming!!

Margare Evans

Posted by: Margaret E | March 11, 2010 8:44 AM    Report this comment

I completely agree with your comments.This is especially true for me as I am super sensitive to gluten & If a product is made in a facility that also processes gluten containing products it is very bad. Some companies are now stating this on the label. We are making progress.

Posted by: gael s | March 10, 2010 7:51 PM    Report this comment

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