LABELS HAVE YOU SCRATCHING YOUR HEAD?
by Amy Ratner
On a shopping trip to the local natural foods store, you spot the words "gluten free" in nice big letters on a bag of snack crackers. Delighted, you drop the bag into your cart.
But when you get hoe, you notice a tiny asterisk after the words "gluten free." The asterisk refers to the statement, "Made in a plant that also produces wheat products; contains less than 100 parts per million of gluten."
The crackers are only one in a growing list of gluten-free products with labels that are confusing, if not outright contradictory. A quick search on the grocery shelf also found these:
1. gluten-free licorice that says the product "may contain wheat"
2. chocolate chip cookies that are produced in a facility that also processes wheat
3. rice snaps that have "no wheat added" but are produced in a facility that may manufacture other products that do contain wheat
4. organic black beans made on shared equipment that also processes wheat ingredients
Statements like this can leave you scratching your head and wondering, "Is this product gluten free or not?"
Companies use these so-called advisory statements voluntarily. They are designed to give consumers more info about the possibility that a food could be cross-contaminated by an allergen during processing.
The Food Allergy and Copnsumer Protection Act (FALCPA) does not address the use of advisory statements. It requires processors to list the eight main food allergens - including wheat - in plain English whenever they are an ingredient in a product.
But only the FDA rule regarding advisory statements says they have to be truthful and not misleading.
A recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology concluded that advisory statements are appearing on foods more often. It also concluded that the statements are increasingly being ignored by the food-allergic consumers they are supposed to help.
The words "gluten free" on a food label have no real definition beyond a general FDA rule that says a label has to accurately state what ingredients are in a food.
The FDA has proposed a definition that would limit the amount of gluten in any food labeled "gluten free" to less than 20 parts per million. But a final definition is not expected to go into effect until Aug 2008.
Even though there is currently no exact definition, consumers have confidence in the gf label. A recent survey of 5,000 gf consumers by a national celiac advocacy group found that 94% trust the words "gluten free" on a product.
The survey, done by the American Celiac Disease Alliance (ACDA), also found 90% rely on advisory labels when deciding whether to purchase a product. While two-thirds might still buy the product, another third said they would never buy a food with an advisory label indicating the presence of wheat.
For consumers of gf products, it's hard to figure out what various kinds of labels really mean. Here's why:
If you buy a product that is labeled "gluten free," but has no advisory statement, all you know for sure is that it does not contain any ingredients made from wheat, barley, rye or oats.*
It may or may not have been made in a plant or on equipment that also produces products containing wheat. It may or may not have been tested. If it was tested, you have no idea how many parts per million of gluten it contains. Foods processors aren't required to tell you about potential cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can occur even if there is no mention of it on the food package.
Some foods simply labeled "gluten free" meet high standards, others do not. You cannot tell just be reading "gluten free" on a package label.
If you buy a product that is labeled "gluten free" and also has an advisory statement that mentions "wheat," you might think it's less safe than one simply labeled "gluten free." But that's not always the case.
A product with an advisory statement could actually be safer than one simply labeled "gluten free."
Sometimes food makers who only use the gf label don't test their products. sometimes those who use an advisory statement take more steps to verify gluten content.
For example, the label on Edward & Sons Baked Brown Rice Snaps says they are gluten free and are manufactured ina facility that may manufacture other products that contain wheat.
But the company's website says that they randomly test to 10 ppms of gluten in finished products and fine non detectable. A test that goes down to 10 ppms is one of the strictest available.
The label on Mr. Krispers Baked Rice Krisps says they contain less than 100 ppm of gluten. Although 100 ppm is higher than the standard being considered by the FDA, the company's website says they meet international standards for gf and testing is done on a regular basis.
Roger Clemsn, a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists, and a U of So. Cal professor w/30 years experience in food and public health, says detailed labels are good for the gf consumer.
"Intially they may be confusing, but at the end of the day they are helpful," he says. "'Gluten free' and 'may contain' labels might seem like a double-edged sword, but the intent is to provide better information."
The study of advisory labels done recently by the U of NB, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, and the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute indicates they might be having the opposite effect.
Consumers see the warnings so often, they assume they are not serious, according to co-author Scott Sicherer, MD, of the Jaffe Institute. The study found that seven percent of 179 products w/advisory labels actually contain an allergen.
Lorraine Heller, editor of Food Navigator, recently wrote that more stringent laws governing labeling of allergens have resulted in a "surge in the dubious 'may contain' labeling.
"But this is a point where consumers and manufacturers simply don't understand each other," Heller wrote. "Manufacturers feel they are being responsible while consumers feel they are opting for a legal copy out."
Some gf consumers do think companies use "may contain" labels to cover themselves legally. Consequently, they don't pay attention to the labels. Others won't buy food with an advisory label that mentions wheat.
RESTRICTING FOOD CHOICES
The ACDA recently told the FDA that those who follow the gf diet use "all labeling messages with significant weight" when deciding what products to buy.
"Voluntary label statements such as 'may contain' or 'processed in a plant with' are currently restricting consumer use of some foods," Andrea Levario, ACDA's exec director wrote in a letter to the FDA.
Gluten-free consumers should avoid products with an advisory statement that indicates wheat might be present, according to Regina Hildwine of the Grocery Manu. Assoc/Food Processors Assoc.
Hildwine, senior director of food labeling and standards, says the food industry intends for the 'may contain' label to warn customers who are allergic or intolerant that they should avoid that food. The label is supposed to be used whena food processor has followed good manufacturing practices and finds than an occasional package of the food still ahs traces of an allergen.
"I don't know that every company goes through that rigorous process," Hildwine says. "But this should be a meaningful label."
The Grocery and Food Processors Assoc. recognizes there is confusion about use of the labels and is preparing to update its own guidelines on when they should be used. If consumers don't understand the terms and food companies use them unnecessarily, the labels aren't working, Hildwine says.
She notes that gluten-free consumers have a particularly challenging job interpreting labels, with "may contain" and gluten-free labeling "working at cross purposes."
But she says she expects the contradiction to be addressed by the time the FDA defines what gluten-free means. "'May contain' would be likely to disappear (from gluten-free food labels)," she says.
Once gf food must test to a specific amount of gluten, proposed at less than 20 ppm, cross-contamination would not be an issue unless it caused the food to exceed that amount.
An official definition of "gluten free" should help clear up a lot of the confusion about labeling of gf foods.
That's what the ACDA is pushing for. The group told the FDA that if conflicting advisory labels continue to appear after the gf definition is finalized, it will "raise more questions than answers ... even if the products meet the standards for gf labeling."
Levario wrote that the end result would "undermine" the definition, wihch is supposed to simplify and clarify gf labels.
There is almost a year before the FDA is required to define "gluten free." Until then, there are ways you can better understand some of the confusing labels on gf food.
Meanwhile, some products are already labeled very clearly. In general, these products have labels that give you exact details about production methods and testing levels.
Some companies note that a product is made on machinery that is dedicated to gf products. That means products containing wheat, barley, rye or oats are never made on or in them. Some companies note that they dedicate entire processing plants to gf products.
Some companies tell you they test products labeled "gluten free" at levels that already meet or exceed the 20 ppm standard proposed by the FDA.
For example, the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), a national celiac support group, has a program that certifies products that test to 10 ppms of gluten. The group also conducts plant inspections modeled after the system used to certify Kosher food. At press time, 19 companies were participating in the GIG program.
By using clearly labeled products and knowing what confusing labels really mean, you can safely fill your shopping cart with gf foods.
Edited by: DOTSLADY at: 10/5/2007 (18:04)
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