Sunday, April 3, 2016

Food Labels Declassified Part 1: Gluten-Free Labels

This is part one of a two part primer on food labels for gluten-free or dietarily restricted eaters. Stay tuned for the next installment, which will be linked to this post once it is published.

Because I am always seeking out new products on store shelves, I have become very familiar with the array of symbols and logos often present on packages that alert customers that a product is gluten-free, vegan, Kosher, or any other attribute. While some are regulated and have methods to ensure a product's compliance, others are just words on a package and don't have any implications for food safety. Although this post is not a definitive round up of certifications and symbols, it's an overview of what to look out for when food shopping to demystify the process.

In this post, I'm highlighting four gluten-free certification organizations/programs in the United States. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but is intended to be a guide for navigating product labels. For more information about the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) guidelines for gluten-free labeling, click here.

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Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO)

GFCO's logo is one that is fairly familiar for consumers, and a label I seek out when looking at products. Products that are vetted through this program must test below 10 parts per million (ppm) for gluten, well below the USDA's recommended guidelines for celiac consumption in the United States. Barley is not allowed in any form as an ingredient for certified products. Ongoing testing is a component of certification. For more information about this label, click here, to visit GFCO's website and click here to access a full list of certified products.

National Foundation for Celiac Awareness Certification

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This certification is from the Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP). In the United States, the seal is backed by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (recently renamed Beyond Celiac), and in Canada is endorsed by the Canadian Celiac association (look for a blue symbol in that country). Products with this symbol test below 20 ppm make the grade, but GFCP also looks at manufacturing practices when considering companies. For more information, check out GFCP's website here, and get a full list of approved products here.

NSF International Gluten-Free Certification

NSF is an international public health organization whose certification meets FDA standards for labeling gluten-free. All products with this certification must test below 20ppm, and manufacturers are routinely audited to ensure cross contamination prevention. For more information about this certification, visit NSF's website here.

Celiac Sprue Association Certification

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This program has four areas of examination before issuing certification to a product: an ingredient review, facility review, inspection of packaging materials, and testing. Here CSA uses ELISA testing (read more here) to test products to 5ppm, the lowest of the gluten-free certifications listed above.  In addition to wheat, barley, and rye, oats are not allowed in products bearing this seal, which is helpful to know for those concerned about oat usage in products. In addition, products processed to remove gluten (such as the wheat starch found in Schar's croissants) are not allowed under this certification. For more information, click here to visit CSA's certification website.

Concluding Thoughts

It's important to know that the above symbols are supported by testing and audits to ensure that they certify gluten-free and celiac-safe food. I certainly factor in certification into my buying decisions, and will buy a certified product over an uncertified one. However, it should be noted that not all uncertified products are unsafe. Seeing a symbol is not a free pass to skip label reading. As a consumer with a dietary restriction it is important to always ask questions, seek clarification, and do due diligence to remain vigilant and safe.

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis however I really do need to point out that all certifications except GFCP which is NOT a product Cert but certifies the manufacturing facility and their gf management system is more preventive in nature and certainly provides greater and consistent safety assurances to the gf consumer.