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- Monday, 08 July 2013 04:44 | Written by Hadassah Patterson
Greetings Fellow Gourmets!
The last post I shared contained a bit of background on what it means to be celiac, to have gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivity.
Now, to break the issue down to a practical level, how does one make the right choices to please gluten-free consumers safely?
To begin with, read. That is correct. Read everything. Read labels. Read the fine print. Talk with suppliers. Read their fine print. Check their policies and best practices. Visit them. Research what regulations may be in the works in your location. Gluten-free symbols are everywhere, and they can mean different things globally. Just take a look at what pops up during an internet search for "international gluten-free symbols"! Get the picture? No wonder people are confused! It can be mind-boggling.
Start small, targeting at least one dish from each category to offer gluten-affected diners. Consider the same factors as one would for other diners: taste, texture, color and appearance; as well as climate changes, such as weather and temperature. When weather changes, "We offer salad" is not an acceptable answer. It pays to do the legwork, or pay someone to do it for the establishment!
Approach the process as if the allergy were your own, your children's, or someone in your family. Everyone is related to someone. Take it personally. That is what will happen if someone gets sick, or heaven forbid, dies, because of carelessness. There is nothing more personal than what goes into our bodies. Sufferers and their families will take it personally.
The single most irritating and confounding allergen label misnomer is a "gluten-free" or "allergen-free" product with the qualifier: "Processed in a facility that also uses/processes/makes....wheat, gluten, barley... (insert allergen here)." So yes, the product claims to be gluten or allergen-free. No, the ingredients do not list any allergen triggers. BUT...Is the customer merely somewhat gluten sensitive, or are they seriously suffering and diagnosed with celiac disease? If it were me or my family, what would I risk?
Many manufacturers are still relatively clueless about what truly makes a product gluten-free. So even if something does not obviously contain wheat or other gluten-contaminated grains, but is processed in a facility with the same items, there is a very good chance people who are highly affected by celiac symptoms can still get sick. Please do not assume that because the product says gluten-free, that it will be alright for everyone. Staff training is imperative also.
In the U.S., there are a few organizations with the ability to certify gluten-free products. Quality Assurance International , also known as QAI, is a company of the National Sanitation Foundation. The ubiquitous NSF label has been a standard of food safety for decades in the U.S., and QAI is originally a U.S. Department of Agriculture approved certifying agent for organic products. QAI has now worked in conjunction with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness to certify gluten-free foods. This company tests products for gluten content above 10 parts per million, or ppm. Also at this level is the Gluten Free Certification Organization, who test for gluten at 10ppm as well.
More stringently, the Celiac Sprue Association will test for gluten levels as low as 5ppm in products. They also require that products be free of oats, whether the oats are "gluten-free" or not.
These certifications are quite costly, must be ongoing, and are extensive. Therefore a manufacturer must be committed to the entire process to retain certification.
The US Food and Drug Administration is said to consider a gluten level lower than only 20 parts per million, or ppm as gluten-free. The site lists safe limits as 20 micrograms or more of gluten per gram of food. Therefore, items labeled "gluten-free" may still contain, or come in contact with gluten at higher levels than celiac-specific certification processes noted above.
What about in the UK and Europe? Coeliac UK has licensed a cross-grain symbol that is widely accepted across their National Levels, as well as in European and American markets. ((coeliac.org.uk)
Also in other countries, such as Italy, there is an established system for measuring and offering gluten-free foods, as travelers may attest to. The Italian Celiacs Association AIC has even entrusted a committee to distinguish between naturally gluten-free foods and foods that have ben rendered gluten-free. Their governmental standard measures gluten-free at 20 mg per kg ( to translate, this is also 20ppm). According to one gluten-free blog, Italian celiacs may have their foods reimbursed by their national health program. (peternowee.com)
As a rule, certain flours are more likely to be gluten-free. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just to give an idea of what is available:
Chickpea/garbanzo or other bean-based flours
Brown or white rice flours of various types
Millet flour (provided there are no thyroid issues)
Flax seed meal as a binding agent - sometimes used as an egg substitute.
Gums such as xanthan gum or guar gum
Starches such as corn, arrowroot, potato, and tapioca
Stay away from products with very generic ingredient descriptions, such as modified food starch, seasonings, etc. In the US modified food starch containing wheat is supposed to be labeled as such, for instance, 'modified wheat starch' or this product contains wheat. However, on imported items this may not be the case! Some country's standards used thresholds of 200 ppm, especially for items rendered gluten free. The European Commission adopted the Codex standard with a dual threshold, in 2012. Therefore, items labeled "gluten-free" have a 20ppm threshold, whereas items labeled "very low gluten" would have a threshold between 21 and 100ppm.
To be clear, anything not specifically listed as an individual ingredient, or that is not properly labeled, may contain wheat or other gluten-contaminated products at harmful levels.
Nor does labeling and testing an item guarantee that no one will have a reaction. However, the level of consideration in these safeguards may be accepted in some circles as a standard of acceptable or reasonable care that can be protective of consumers as well as businesses.
Beyond individual and establishment education, it would be best to consult with dietary and legal counsel regarding menu and advertisement claims, so as to properly notify potential customers about what is offered. Many establishments now tell customers that certain items or dishes are available upon request, but may not be suitable for those with severe allergies.
According to Alice Bast, president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness in 2011, "17 million families" seek a safe place for celiac friendly dining in the United States alone. Surely, this level of consumer demand must be met with a dose of sensitivity!
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional or dietician, this article is for informational purposes only.