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Last week, gluten-free eaters had a good reason to raise their (gluten-free) beers and celebrate with (gluten-free) cake. After pondering the issue for nearly 10 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a new, set definition for “gluten-free” to promote consistency and safety throughout the food industry. According to the new definition, food must contain no more than 20 parts per million of gluten (a wheat protein that can cause autoimmune reactions in some people) to merit a “GF” sticker. Twenty parts per million is widely considered to be the threshold people on gluten-free diets can eat without having a reaction. Previously, there were no universal standards for how much gluten was actually allowed in supposedly “gluten-free” food items.

Why It Matters

Gluten is a serious dietary concern for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Approximately 1 out of every 133 Americans has celiac disease, and thousands more are undiagnosed or experience some form of gluten sensitivity. When someone with either condition eats wheat, barley, rye, or anything that might contain any of those grains, their immune system releases antibodies that attack the small intestine and damage the digestive system. The most common symptoms include stomachache, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, and rapid weight loss.

Currently, there’s no cure for celiac disease or gluten intolerance except avoiding gluten altogether, which is not easy or especially convenient. Nobody knows exactly why, but cases of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity have skyrocketed in the past 50 years. The food industry has responded quickly to the growing need for gluten-free food items. Annual sales of gluten-free foods and products tipped the scale at more than $4 billion in 2012, and they’re expected to grow to $6 billion by 2017.

But despite the prevalence of gluten-free cookies, pancake mixes, cereals, and prepared foods, there hasn’t been much regulation. Before last week, the FDA didn’t have a working definition of “gluten-free.” Without enforceable guidelines, pretty much anything could be labeled “gluten-free.” Considering the GF diet’s popularity as a trend amongst celebrities and weight loss method, companies are happy to slap the GF label on any old product.

Is It Legit?

Yes, but it will take up to a year to implement. The FDA has considered creating industry-wide regulations since it passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 (which improved food labeling for many common allergens). The FALCPA didn’t offer any specific rules for gluten, probably because there was no existing definition for gluten-free at the time. The FDA wrote a proposal extending the act to gluten back in 2007, reassessed the idea in 2011, and began researching how to implement a real and effective definition of “gluten-free.”

The new standards are hardly slapdash — the FDA has been pondering how to organize and regulate GF foods for nearly a decade. Manufacturers have one year (until August 5, 2014) to apply the new regulations to their products. After that, any foods labeled “gluten-free,” “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” or “no gluten” that don’t match up with the official definition (20 ppm or less of gluten) will be considered misleading and can be seized or forcibly recalled by the FDA. With a new working definition, the FDA will be better equipped to prevent false advertising and make it easier for those with gluten sensitivities to stay safe in the grocery store.

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