For the 1% of the American population with celiac disease, eating gluten-free is a necessity. For someone with this disease, the list of short-term side effects caused by consumption of gluten range from abdominal pain and nausea, to headaches and joint pain. If these same individuals regularly eat gluten, long-term consequences include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, increased risk of certain cancers, stunted growth in children, and much more. And it’s not just those with celiac disease who choose to avoid gluten. Those with a food allergy to wheat may look for gluten-free distinctions on their food as well, since wheat is one of the most common sources of gluten. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, while not yet well understood, is also increasing in popularity as the group of individuals with this condition experience relief from gastrointestinal issues when gluten is avoided.
In August of 2013, the FDA heard the pleas of the gluten-free community to set a firm definition for gluten-free foods. The limit for allowable gluten particles in a food with a gluten-free label is set at 20 parts per million (ppm). This is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods, and is the standard amount used in other countries that beat us to the punch on gluten-free labeling. As of August 5, 2014, all packaged food products with a gluten-free distinction must adhere to this definition, or will be deemed as misbranded by the FDA and be subject to recall.
Nearly three years later, the FDA gave those in the gluten-free community some good news. After conducting a study of more than 250 products with a gluten-free distinction, they found that 99.5% of these products met the required definition. Only one product was above the 20-ppm threshold, and upon recall and subsequent sampling, was found to be compliant. This is a noticeable improvement over the previous 5% of products on the market with inaccurate gluten-free claims before the definition was set.
While this is a noble accomplishment for the retail food industry similar tests were not conducted for restaurants and similar retail food establishments. Gluten-free menus have become almost a norm when dining out, but there’s nobody checking on their accuracy. The FDA has stated that restaurants and other concepts selling restaurant-type food should follow the set definition given to packaged goods, but without analytical testing it can be difficult to ensure a gluten-free menu isn’t going to get someone sick.
With so much variability in a foodservice kitchen, how can a facility know that their gluten-free menu is accurate? The first step is verification of ingredients. All products being used in a gluten-free dish should be confirmed as containing less than 20 ppm by the manufacturer. If the products themselves don’t meet the set definition, then there’s no way the final dish does either. While this process is relatively straightforward, the real test for a dining establishment serving a gluten-free dish is in the preparation.
It’s exceedingly important to make sure that staff know that cross-contact can occur with gluten, and to watch for common areas where it might happen, such as cutting boards or utensils. It could even happen in some less thought-about areas, like shared fryers or flattop grills. Continual training is the greatest tool a foodservice establishment has to ensure that their gluten-free offerings are truthful, and that guests ordering from them can rest assured they’re going to have a great experience. It’s not outside the realm of possibilities that the FDA will take their gluten testing efforts to commercial kitchens next, so now is the time to ensure you’re following best practices for serving gluten-free guests, for both their wellbeing as well as the reputation of your establishment.
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