By Rina Shah, National Monitor | August 3, 2013
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a final rule setting the standards for gluten content before a product can be labeled “gluten-free.” Products that want to use similar labels such as “without gluten” and “no gluten” will also have to follow these standards. The standard requires that the product have no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. While it may seem that that is not truly gluten-free, it is the lowest level that current, valid scientific tools can consistently detect and confirm. Small amounts of gluten can usually be tolerated by those with celiac disease.
In visual terms, gluten is a sticky, glue-like substance that is responsible for the chewy structure found in bread and other products made from these grains. Gluten is a group of proteins that are natural components in wheat, rye, barley, and grains that are crossbreeds of these. Gluten can also be found in rye, oats, and barley.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune and digestive disorder that is triggered by sensitivity to gluten. When products containing gluten are consumed, the person suffers from damage to the stomach lining. Gluten causes an allergic response in the body, with production of antibodies that attack gluten attacking the stomach lining. A glycoprotein found in the gluten can also attack the lining of the stomach.
People with celiac disease have a wide variety of symptoms. The most common symptoms are digestive problems. Other symptoms include a severe skin rash, anemia, musculoskeletal cramps and pains, growth problems in children, seizures, nerve damage that causes tingling in the legs, mouth ulcers, and missed menstrual periods. Celiac disease may also be accompanied by other autoimmune disorders, such as lupus. In western countries, celiac disease is one of the most common chronic conditions.
In evolutionary terms, wheat is a relatively new addition to the human diet. Scientists believe that the stomach has not fully adapted to consuming gluten. Including gluten sensitivity that does not rise to the level of a celiac disease diagnosis, one in seven people in the U.S. cannot tolerate gluten.
Gluten-free diets have also become popular for those that do not suffer from celiac disease. Some look to it to lose weight or boost energy. However, diet experts state that unnecessary removal of all gluten can be damaging. The important component is to vary grains and sources of complex carbohydrates, moving beyond a heavily wheat-based diet that is popular in the U.S. Variety should be included in the diet irrespective of whether or not a certain food has gluten. Foregoing all gluten unnecessarily can mean lack of necessary nutrients.