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What does 'gluten free' really mean?

New rules from the FDA provide an answer—though confusion remains over who really needs to avoid gluten

Published: August 14, 2013 12:00 PM

Grocery store shelves are filled with products that claim to be “gluten free.” And new rules from the Food and Drug Administration help to clarify what that term really means. Unfortunately, they don’t help to clarify who really needs to look for gluten-free products in the first place. And going gluten free when you don’t need to can actually be a bad idea.

Gluten is a protein found naturally in wheat, rye, and barley, and sometimes added to other foods as a thickening agent. Under the new rule, products that bear that label—or related ones such as “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” or “no gluten”—must not contain any of those grains, and must not have a detectable amount of gluten.

Going gluten free is essential for the 1 percent of people who have celiac disease. In those people, the protein can damage the lining of the small intestines, impairing the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Ultimately, that can lead to malnutrition and may contribute to a host of other health problems, including osteoporosis and even cancer. About 6 percent of people have a much milder reaction to gluten. In them, the protein isn’t linked to any serious health problem, but can cause gastrointestinal distress.

But no one should avoid gluten without first talking with a doctor. That’s because the blood test for celiac disease looks for antibodies that the body creates in response to gluten. So if you have celiac disease but have gone gluten free, your doctor might not be able to diagnose the condition. And going gluten free if you don’t need to can actually be bad for your health, especially if that causes you to skip foods that are high in fiber and vitamins but happen to contain wheat.

Finally, gluten-free foods often have more fat and calories than their regular counterparts, since food makers compensate for the loss of wheat by packing in other ingredients. For example, in our recent bagel tests, Udi’s Gluten Free Plain bagel scored well in terms of taste, so might be a good option for people who really have to eat gluten free. But it contained double the fat of the regular bagels we tested.

—Ciara Rafferty

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