What You Should Know About Gluten Free Certification
If you have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or gluten intolerance, you need to follow a strict gluten free diet. Fortunately, there are plenty of foods out there that are naturally free from gluten. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, meat and poultry, and natural herbs and spices are all gluten free and make healthy additions to the gluten free diet.
The issue is that many people rely on convenient, pre-packaged foods. As the gluten free diet becomes more popular, food manufacturers are putting more effort into making products that are gluten free. But how do you know whether a product is truly gluten free or if there might be a risk for cross-contamination?
Gluten free certification exists to hold food manufacturers to a certain standard if they want to label their products gluten free. Keep reading to learn about gluten free certification programs.
What Gluten Free Certification Programs Exist?
There are three primary gluten free certification programs, each with their own standards and testing procedures. These organizations test the gluten content of foods, requiring them to be at or below a certain level of gluten content measured in parts per million (ppm).
Here is a quick overview of the top three gluten free certification programs:
- The Gluten Free Certification Organization (GFCO) – This organization tests foods to 20 ppm gluten, but the executive director states that most products test lower.
- The Gluten Free Certification Program (GFCP) – This program is a combination of the Allergen Control Group and the Canadian Celiac Association. It is endorsed by Beyond Celiac in the United States and tests foods to 20 ppm gluten content.
- The Celiac Support Association – Formerly the Celiac Sprue Association, this organization has the most stringent standards, requiring foods to have less than 5ppm gluten content. They also require foods to be free from oats, even if they are gluten free.
In addition to these gluten free certification programs, the FDA also allows food manufacturers to label their products gluten free if they contain less than 20 ppm gluten. Some manufacturers, including Schär (certified by AOECS), voluntarily choose to label their gluten free foods at levels much lower than the one required by the FDA (i.e. below 5 ppm).
Another point to consider is the possibility that other food manufacturers may step up their game during the certification process and then fall back on their standards after they’ve passed inspection.
How Does a Product Become Certified Gluten Free?
The primary requirement for a product to become gluten free certified is to test below the program’s testing minimum. Most programs require foods to test at or below 20 ppm gluten, though the Celiac Support Association requires foods to test at or below 5 ppm.
In addition to testing for gluten, certification programs also review product packaging and manufacturing facilities. For example, the Gluten Free Certification Organization requires an annual recertification process involving an ingredient review and plant inspection on top of product testing. The Celiac Support Association takes things one step further and also reviews product packaging. If everything checks out, the program allows the manufacturer to display the program’s seal of gluten free approval on their packaging.
Not only is the process to obtain gluten free certification time-consuming, but it can also be quite costly for food manufacturers. The program may complete the audits and tests, but the company itself may be billed for those services. This is why it is primarily dedicated gluten free food companies (or major food manufacturers) that even bother to apply for certification.
Can You Really Trusted Certified Gluten Free Foods?
The longer you follow the gluten free diet, the more severe your reaction is likely to be if you accidentally ingest it. This being said, you’re right to wonder whether you can really trust certified gluten free foods and the programs that certify them.
If you have any doubt that a food or food product might not be gluten free, it is safest to avoid it. When it comes to certified gluten free foods, the risk is very low, but you still need to understand what that certification means. Remember, different certification programs test to different levels (only the Celiac Support Association tests to less than 20ppm) and foods may still contain up to 20 ppm gluten and be labeled gluten free. If you are highly sensitive to trace gluten, it may not be safe for you.
Fortunately, many of the food manufacturers that go through the process to receive gluten free certification are either strictly dedicated to producing gluten free foods or are highly motivated to keep their products safe for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. The process to obtain gluten free certification is not a cake walk, so the companies who aren’t willing to maintain the standards are unlikely to attempt certification in the first place.
If you’re extremely sensitive to trace gluten, your best bet is still to stick to naturally gluten free foods you prepare yourself. If you do want to include some packaged gluten free foods, look for products that carry the Celiac Support Association’s seal of approval.
Tips for Staying Safe on the Gluten Free Diet
The best way to ensure that everything you eat is completely gluten free is to prepare the food yourself. You’ll need to stick to naturally gluten free foods and follow safe food handling procedures to avoid cross-contamination as well.
If that sounds like a hassle, remember that there are gluten free packaged foods out there but it’s still your responsibility to check for the gluten free certification. Buying certified gluten free foods decreases your risk of having a negative reaction, but you have to remember that just because a product is certified gluten free doesn’t necessarily mean it is 100% free from trace gluten. Your best bet with packaged foods is to buy from brands (like Schär) that make their products in dedicated gluten free facilities.
Going gluten free is not the easiest choice you could make, but it is the only choice if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Take the time to learn how to identify gluten-containing ingredients and start looking for the certified gluten free label on the foods you eat.