Gluten Free: What does it actually mean?

{ We hear about “gluten free” all the time but lots of us still have questions! Read on to learn what gluten is, coeliac disease facts and finally understand complicated food labelling. }

Consumers are faced with interpreting food labels every time they buy a packaged product. Food labels provide a range of information and it can be overwhelming deciding what to focus on. For the gluten free consumer, there are particular items of benefit on a food label, for example allergen statements and nutrient content claims, such as ‘gluten free’. Gluten Free. Have you ever wondered what that statement really means though? This article endeavours to provide some information on gluten from a nutrition and food labelling perspective. It covers topics such as what gluten is, what coeliac disease is, and looks at gluten labelling on foods. Most importantly, we hope it instils a desire for further knowledge; for it is knowledge that provides us with ability to make informed decisions to meets our needs.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein naturally found in many grains such as wheat (and its varieties), rye, triticale, barley and oats.

What is Coeliac Disease?

Coeliac Australia reports that approximately 1 in 70 Australians have coeliac disease, with 4 out of 5 remaining undiagnosed. Coeliac Disease is an autoimmune disease where consumption of gluten causes inflammation and damage to the small bowel. The small bowel has an extensive surface area as it is covered in villi (tiny projections that protrude out) which help absorb nutrients from food. In people with coeliac disease, consumption of gluten causes the villi to become flattened and inflamed resulting in reduced capacity for nutrient absorption. Coeliac Australia states that the inflammation caused by coeliac disease can also present in other areas in the body such as the skin, joints, bones, liver, pancreas, thyroid gland, nervous system and reproductive tract. Early diagnosis and treatment of coeliac disease is important as it can reduce the risk of associated medical conditions. Currently treatment involves lifelong adherence to a gluten free diet to heal the small bowel and improve overall health.

Gluten Labelling on Foods

As a way of introduction to food labelling, food for sale in Australia and New Zealand is required to comply with food standards. These food standards are developed by an agency aptly named Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Enforcement of the food standards is not carried out by FSANZ, rather it is carried out by state and territory and New Zealand agencies. Included in the food standards, it states that a mandatory declaration is required when a food contains certain allergenic foods or substances. ‘Cereals containing gluten’ is included in this list of foods or substances that require a declaration.
Conversely, should a food not contain any gluten and the manufacturer wishes to label it as ‘gluten free’, the food standards state that the following conditions must be met for a product to be labelled ‘gluten free’: The food must not contain: Detectable gluten; or Oats or oat products; or Cereals containing gluten that have been malted, or products of such cereals A product that makes a gluten content claim is also required to show ‘gluten’ in the Nutrition Information panel. As gluten is a type protein, it is shown in the panel as a subset of protein. In the the below pictures, both products are labelled ‘Gluten Free’ however they have shown the gluten content in the panel slightly differently: one product lists the gluten content as ‘0 mg’ and the other lists the gluten content as ‘Not Detected’.
Gluten Free 0mg

Gluten Free Not Detected
Coeliac Australia states that the current level of gluten detection in Australia is 3-5 ppm, that is 0.003 g to 0.005 g of gluten per 1 kg of product. This means that for a product to be labelled ‘gluten free’, gluten needs to be not detected at this level. The definition used in Australia is different to other countries, for example, in North America and the EU, where the limit for ‘gluten free’ foods is slightly higher at 20 ppm or less.
We hope the above provides a bit of insight into how the relationship between gluten, nutrition and food labelling. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of manufacturers to comply with food standards including the information they provide on food labels. For further reading, we recommend checking out Coeliac Australia for further information on understanding coeliac disease and eating gluten free. Disclaimer: This article is provided for information purposes only. It is not intended as advice and should not be relied upon as such. Independent advice suited to individual circumstances should be sought from relevant industry professionals prior to making any decisions.
Categories: HEALTH.