"Profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception." ~ Sophocles
People with celiac disease beware: just because a food is labeled "gluten-free" on its packaging does not mean that it is actually gluten-free. There may in fact be a considerable amount of gluten in the product…more than enough to bring about the gastrointestinal difficulties that are the hallmark of the illness.1
At the present time, there are no guidelines from the government on using the term gluten-free on a food label. So manufacturers get to use their own definition of gluten-free, which, needless to say, allows them to stretch the truth quite a bit. The accepted definition of gluten-free among food experts and officials in the European Union is a maximum of 20 parts per million of gluten. That is the lowest measurable quantity of gluten that can be detected by standard lab testing.
That threshold is also one believed to be safe for those suffering from celiac disease. The disorder occurs when the body cannot tolerate the gluten found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats. It causes the immune system to damage the small intestine and prevents it from properly absorbing nutrients from food. The symptoms may include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Approximately three million Americans are believed to have celiac disease, but a substantial portion of those are probably undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
The United States Food and Drug Administration is finally trying to do something about the misrepresentation of products as gluten-free. They want the below 20 parts per million threshold to be met by any food item that is labeled gluten-free. But still, while the FDA awaits public commentary and input from the almighty food industry, any ruling they determine will still most likely not take effect until some time in 2012.
Until then, those with celiac disease are going to have to continue taking their chances with products on the shelves. Some manufacturers do explicitly identify their items as having no more than 20 parts per million of gluten, letting celiac sufferers know they are truly safe choices. Of course, upping your intake of fruits and vegetables and cutting back to some extent on packaged goods would be beneficial nutritionally and less risky. That would be a health boon to every person, celiac sufferer or not.
Healthy, whole grains are certainly a better option than refined grains and highly processed foods, but even for those of us without celiac disease, there can be reactions. In fact, almost everyone is allergic to wheat, corn, and dairy to some degree. For most people, however, the level of allergic reaction is so low that the effects are not immediately noticeable. Nevertheless, they may still end up compromising your health if consumed over a long enough time.
The keys behind the allergies are large proteins that do not get sufficiently broken down in the intestines. Being too large, they are not available to the body to be used as food and are, instead, treated as allergens and are attacked by the immune system, along with any contiguous tissue. In the intestinal tract, this can take the form of gas, bloating, cramping, IBS, and even Crohn's disease. If the large proteins make their way into the bloodstream, they trigger a major immune response, form Circulating Immune Complexes, and may ultimately trigger severe autoimmune disorders. Consuming foods containing pectin (think fruit) along with grains can further complicate the problem since the pectin coats the proteins and prevents them from being broken down by enzymes and digestive juices. Using a digestive enzyme formula that contains pectinase can help in this regard -- in addition to helping break down fruit allergens.
Rice may be a better option for most people who suffer from celiac disease because it is gluten-free. However -- although far less common -- some people are indeed allergic to rice, particularly among those societies that use rice as a dietary staple. Thus, rice allergies are almost unknown in the United States but may affect as many as 10 percent of the population in Japan.
So if you have celiac disease, or even if you don't, try to limit your grain intake or stick with safer choices like rice. Turn to fruits and vegetables to make sure you get enough fiber. Use a digestive enzyme formula that contains pectinase. And read those package labels carefully for the next few months at least. If it doesn't guarantee less than 20 parts per million of gluten, pass it up in favor of something else that does.
1 Kotz, Deborah. "When Foods Labeled "Gluten-Free" Aren't." Boston.com. 3 August 2011. NY Times Co. 16 August 2011. <http://www.boston.com/Boston/dailydose/2011/08/when-foods-labeled-gluten-free-aren/5QNQfeP7SnNKizcwwJ6IsI/index.html>.