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Anyone with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance knows that finding gluten-free foods is a real challenge. Many people have even had the frustrating experience of finding out that a meal had gluten after eating something labeled gluten-free.

As it turns out, labeling is both a friend and a foe to folks who can’t adequately process gluten. There are several different ways foods can be labeled — gluten-free, certified gluten-free, gluten-removed, and allergen-free and each have very different standards. It’s imperative to know what you’re eating and how it has been evaluated. Here’s a breakdown of those labels to help you make the best-informed decisions about your diet.

Gluten-FreeVegan soy-free refined sugar free Gluten-Free Paleo Pecan Pie Bars

Paleo Pecan Pie Bars/One Green Planet

The FDA mandates that any food containing 20 ppm or less of gluten can be labeled gluten-free. This label seems pretty straightforward, but there’s a catch: the gluten-free label can be put on any foods that are inherently gluten-free. While this may seem easy to understand at first, things can be a little more complicated beneath the surface. For instance, there have been cases where companies remove the gluten-free label while still claiming the food is safe for celiacs.

The issue here is the 20 ppm rule. While 20 ppm may be safe for some people, it can cause reactions in others. Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are still largely misunderstood and there is a wide variety of reaction levels.

Manufacturers are also not required to test their final products before putting the ‘gluten-free’ label on their packaging. Be aware that statements on packaging claiming that products ‘may contain’ gluten or are ‘made on shared equipment’ are completely voluntary. The FDA doesn’t require companies to provide that information to consumers. Anyone who is severely sensitive to gluten should talk to their doctor and find the best strategies for choosing ‘certified gluten-free’ foods.

CGFO-CertifiedVegan Gluten-Free Flourless Double Chocolate Heart Cakes with Buttercream Frosting with coconut

Vegan Gluten-Free Flourless Double Chocolate Heart Cakes with Buttercream Frosting/One Green Planet

The Gluten-Free Certification Organization is a third party which offers their stamp to foods with 10ppm of gluten or less. This label can only be put on products that have complied with the GFCO’s standards and been audited by one of the organizations the GFCO works with. Certification is also only valid for one year, so products need to be re-certified to maintain safety for celiacs. GFCO certification ensures that the final product contains 10ppm or less of gluten and that the facility has been inspected.

The organization also offers a detailed directory of certified gluten-free products and companies. That way, consumers don’t have to reach out directly to confirm gluten-free status.

Gluten-RemovedVegan Gluten-Free Vegetables and Lemongrass Wild Rice Stuffed Peppers

Vegan Gluten-Free Vegetables and Lemongrass Wild Rice Stuffed Peppers/One Green Planet

Gluten-removed is a relatively new label, and it’s found most frequently on beers. The label refers to a process in which enzymes are used to break gluten down in order to make it easier to process. So far, there has not been any real scientific consensus on the effectiveness of this method. There have been some mixed results, and some gluten-sensitive people have reactions to gluten-removed products.

Cynthia Kupper, the CEO of the Gluten Intolerance Group, stated that “The medical and scientific community has not validated or accepted that these [products] are safe because available gluten testing methods have not been sufficiently accurate with fermented and hydrolyzed products.” The theory is that because the enzymes break gluten down, gluten in these products actually becomes more difficult for tests to detect. If you are sensitive to gluten, you may want to choose a gluten-free product instead of a gluten-removed one.

Allergen-FreeVegan Gluten-Free Strawberry Banana Baked Oatmeal refined sugar-free with fresh strawberries

Strawberry Banana Baked Oatmeal Cups/One Green Planet

The label ‘allergen-free’ is the easiest of all to understand because it can usually just be discounted. As it turns out, there is no law in the United States that regulates the term, meaning that anyone can put it on their packaging regardless of the ingredients.

The most important piece of information about the ‘allergen-free’ label in relation to gluten, though, is that ‘gluten allergies’ do not exist. There is a lot of misinformation surrounding gluten, so there’s no wonder people talk about having gluten allergies. It’s important to understand the root cause of the issue. Allergies to specific ingredients like wheat are not the same as a gluten intolerance or celiac disease (which is a classified as an autoimmune disorder).

There is still some confusion about the specifics of a gluten intolerance or a sensitivity. The bottom line is, there is no medical definition for a ‘gluten allergy.’ Therefore, any product that’s labelled only to be ‘allergen free’ may not in fact be free of gluten.

If you follow a gluten-free diet, we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone and has both free and paid versions. The app has thousands of allergy-friendly & vegan recipes/cooking tips and hundreds of search filters, features like bookmarking, meal plans and more! The app is proof that having diet restrictions doesn’t have to mean giving up the good stuff!

Lead image source: Shutterstock

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