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What does it mean when a label says "gluten-free"?

The 4+ multi-billion dollar gluten-free industry is growing by leaps and bounds, gluten free chip by gluten free chip. It's expected to crack $6 billion within a couple years.

Over two-thirds of the U.S. population purchased at least one gluten-free item in 2012. That would be awesome if that product was Miracle Noodle because shirataki noodles are beneficial for health.

But what about the myriad other gluten-free products that have seemingly sprouted (no pun intended, though some healthy gluten-free products are sprouted, such as healthy bread) overnight into every supermarket aisle?

Gluten-free waffles, cakes, cookies, chips, even shampoo!

What does it mean exactly when a label says “gluten-free?”

In August, 2013, the FDA finally defined what gluten-free means.

This is a big relief for millions of Americans who are choosing to go gluten-free because they think it’s healthier, or, in the case of 3 million Americans who have Celiac Disease, absolutely know that going gluten-free is in their best health interest (The 1% of Americans that do have this autoimmune disease risk serious intestinal trouble such as cancer.)

And for those that don’t have Celiac but believe a gluten-free diet is healthier, though it may not be, it’s still a relief that the FDA rolled out guidelines.

The magic number that the FDA came up with: 20 parts per million.

By August of 2014, food producers will be forced to comply with the new labeling standards; theoretically, if a food tested at 21 parts per million, it would not be considered gluten-free.

The new, finite guidelines are sure to provide comfort to those who need to completely avoid gluten.

But watch out for foods that claim they are “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” “contain no gluten,” or any other labeling claim other than “gluten-free.” If you come across a food with any other label than “gluten-free” and that food is 21 parts per million or greater, the food is misbranded.

How can you know, though, that a food is 20 parts per million, or 21?

It can be difficult at times to ascertain but if you look up a brand on reputable Celiac or gluten-free websites, you’ll be sure to do your due diligence.

And one more cautionary tale in gluten-free labeling: do you really need a label on, say, a bag of apples to inform you that the apples are “gluten-free?” Of course not. Don’t be duped by the marketing hype of gluten-free foods. But do look for alternatives to high-starch gluten-containing grains.

We can think of a few right here.

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