September 30, 2011
Whether as muffins, rolls, or loaves, wheat bread is found in most households. But few consumers may appreciate the substance that helps the dough rise, keeps the bread from falling apart, makes it chewy, and adds to its flavor.
That substance is gluten. Breads, cakes, cereals, pastas, and many other foods are made with wheat or added wheat gluten to improve their baking quality and texture.
Technically, gluten represents specific proteins that occur naturally in wheat. However, the term “gluten” is commonly used to refer to certain proteins that occur naturally not only in wheat, but also in rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains and that can harm people who have celiac disease. The only treatment for this disorder is a life-long gluten-free diet.
Eating gluten doesn’t bother most consumers, but some people with celiac disease have health-threatening reactions, says Stefano Luccioli, M.D., a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allergist and immunologist. They need to know whether a food contains gluten.
FDA has been working to define “gluten-free” to:
- eliminate uncertainty about how food producers may label their products.
- assure consumers who must avoid gluten that foods labeled “gluten-free” meet a clear standard established and enforced by FDA.
FDA’s actions on Aug. 2 bring the agency one step closer to a standard definition of “gluten-free.” On this date:
- FDA reopens the public comment period on its proposed gluten-free labeling rule published on Jan. 23, 2007.
- FDA makes available, and seeks comments on, a report on the health effects of gluten in people with celiac disease. The report includes a safety assessment on levels of gluten sensitivity in people with the disease.
Is Gluten-Free for Me?
“Eating gluten-free is not meant to be a diet craze,” says Rhonda Kane, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer at FDA. “It’s a medical necessity for those who have celiac disease.”
“There are no nutritional advantages for a person not sensitive to gluten to be on a gluten-free diet,” she adds. “Those who are not sensitive to gluten have more flexibility and can choose from a greater variety of foods to achieve a balanced diet.”
Gluten-free is not synonymous with low fat, low sugar, or low sodium. For people who must be on a gluten-free diet, Kane says it’s important to check the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts information on food labels to find the most nutritious options.