Wednesday, April 13, 2011

False gluten-free claims – Go straight to jail

I don't know what in the cosmos conspired to bring an obviously unbalanced and seemingly evil guy and the gluten-free world onto the same path, but I think it's a really unusual situation. I’m talking about the story out of Durham, North Carolina in which a vendor re-packaged and sold wheat bread as gluten-free. Witnesses also said Paul Evan Seelig, 48, owner of Great Specialty Bread Co.,told customers he himself had celiac disease. The judge sentenced him to 9-11 years in jail and also ordered a mental evaluation as well as testing to see if he really has celiac disease.

This is a story that easily strikes fear in any gluten-free heart, but I think we need to take it for what it is - something really, really weird that is unlikely to happen again.

The one good thing that could come out of this would be if it helps move the FDA to legally define what gluten-free means on a food label. Right now the only thing the FDA says is that processors can't knowingly label foods as not containing something they do contain (or vice versa). Granted that legality is indirectly what caused Seelig to be convicted, but it is thin protection for the growing and needy gluten-free population.

If the FDA would just do what they were supposed to do in 2008 and define gluten free, we would all be better off. The definition would mean that if a product is labeled gluten-free, it must contain less than 20 ppm of gluten (the amount currently under consideration). Then a gluten-free label would mean the processor has tested the item and found it to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten.

Those of you who are new to labeling matters may wonder why a gluten-free label would be fine on items that might contain up to 20 ppm of gluten. That's because we live in a real world where it is impossible to make an item that contains zero gluten. Don't let anyone tell you differently and above all, don't despair. This has been true from the beginning of time and results in the ability to live healthy gluten-free lives.

Another aspect to remember is that a product that tests to less than 20 ppm of gluten actually contains somewhere between zero and 19 ppm of gluten. Four years ago when the FDA proposed 20 ppm as the cut-off amount, testing at lower levels was not considereed accurate.

These days, tests can go lower than 20 ppm of gluten and it seems many processors who are currently testing use one designed to test for 10 ppm of gluten not only because they can, but also to make sure they are well below the 20 ppm cutoff. Doctors assure us that when we eat foods with this potential amount of gluten, we stay healthy. And since scientific research has not identified a medical reason to go lower, the FDA seems to believe that defining gluten free at a lesser number would put an unnecessary burden on food makers.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s forget Seelig, hope his time in prison benefits everyone, including Seelig himself, and get behind the effort to encourage the FDA to get off the dime and define what gluten free should mean on a food label. Go to for information on that effort.



Anonymous said...

Wow..I am new to living gluten free as my 14 year old was just diagnosed. I see some products that do not contain wheat but are not labeled gluten free?? A little confused.

Amy said...

It's not uncommon to be confused when you are new to the gluten-free diet. It will get easier, we promise.
You don't see "gluten free" on products that do not contain wheat because its completely up to the food maker to decide if they want to use a gluten-free label. In fact there are many products that don't contain wheat that also don't say they are gluten free.
So how can you figure out if they really are gluten free?
You have to read the ingredients label and make sure that the product also does not contain barley or rye. Allergen labeling laws require that wheat be listed as an ingredient whenever its used, but that's not the case for barley or rye. Rye is not that common and when it is used you will almost always see it listed as an ingredient. Barley is a little trickier since it can be listed as malt, malt flavoring, malt extract or just plain flavoring. Fortunately, most companies do refer to barley as malt so you know what to look for, but it is possible some might just say flavoring. There are a few other ingredients that you should question, including dextrin (not maltodextrin which is gluten free) and seasonings. Also soy sauce is often made from wheat, but that will be on the label.
And you can only eat oats that are specifically labeled gluten free. Products that contain these special oats are clearly labeled.
A gluten-free label makes it easier to determine if a food is gluten free, but its not the only way.
You can find more information about how to read labels, which ingredients are allowed, questionable and prohibited on our website, and in the magazine. Ordering information is also on the website.