This article features a Q&A interview with Cynthia Kupper, RD and CEO of the Gluten Intolerance Group.
One of my favorite things to do as a gluten-free blogger is to learn about other influential people in the gluten-free space.
One person I’ve been curious about is Cynthia Kupper. I’ve been wanting to do a Q&A interview with her for awhile. So I reached out to Kupper to ask if she’d participate in an interview and she said, “Yes!”
Kupper is a registered dietician and CEO of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) of North America.
In case you’ve been living under a bubble for the past decade, the GIG is one of the largest advocacy groups for people following a gluten-free diet.
This organization is responsible for offering third party certifications of many of the products you know and love, as well as certifying restaurants with its official “certified gluten-free” seal too. You have likely seen GIG’s official “certified gluten-free label” on many of the products you buy at the grocery store!
The GIG is responsible for making sure food manufacturers offer reliably tested gluten-free foods for those of us on a gluten-free diet.
While the FDA allows manufacturers to use the “gluten-free” language on their packaging if a product contains less than 20 ppm of gluten, the GIG goes a step further.
As a third party agency, the GIG ensures products are not only gluten-free but also that they contain less than 10 ppm of gluten, a higher standard than the FDA (read more about gluten-free labeling laws and certifications).
The GIG is dedicated to educating the public, food manufacturers and restaurants about the realities of gluten-free living. The organization tirelessly helps educate restaurant owners and chefs about safe, gluten-free practices, and helps manufacturers create products safe for anyone who cannot eat gluten.
Kupper was diagnosed with celiac disease more than 20 years ago and knows first-hand the challenges of living a gluten-free lifestyle. Dedicated to doing her part to raise awareness for celiac disease, she took a leap of faith and left her clinical practice to join the GIG team as an executive director … eventually becoming CEO.
Kupper has helped move GIG from a local support group to a leading international organization for the gluten-free community.
Let’s get to know Cynthia Kupper, GIG and more…
Q: Please share with Good For You Gluten Free readers a bit more about how you started your personal gluten-free journey. When? Why? Etc.?
A: I was diagnosed with celiac disease in my mid-thirties while I was working as a clinical dietitian at a hospital. I became very sick and began looking for answers for my health, which is why I initially reached out to Elaine Hartsook, PhD, RD, founder of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), to tap into her expertise. I also began volunteering regularly with GIG. I started support groups and attended conferences with Elaine.
Q: What was your biggest challenge when you took over GIG, and how does it compare to your biggest challenge now (2017)?
A: GIG had been around for approximately 20 years when I took over. Unfortunately, Elaine became very ill. She passed the organization over to me approximately four years after I had become involved with GIG and shortly before her death. Elaine’s dream was for GIG to be a national non-profit, but at that time it looked more like a local support group.
My biggest challenge at that time was to grow the organization and realize Elaine’s dream. Today, our challenge is to ensure that our food safety program and many social programs are impactful for the consumer and to increase the organization’s visibility internationally.
Q: I just read that GFCO has certified over 30,000 products in 29 different countries. Congratulations! What was the first product you ever “certified”? How did the partnership come to fruition?
A: We are constantly certifying new products and the total number certified is currently more than 45,000. The first products we certified when we introduced the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) program were Enjoy Life products.
Enjoy Life Foods was based out of Chicago at that time and we sat at the table with them when it came to FDA regulations and other industry matters. We struck up a conversation with them and they expressed an interest in gaining certification.
Q: One of the most frustrating things for gluten-free people is reading a food label. Lately, I’ve seen products that are certified gluten-free by GIG, yet they contain a gluten ingredient. Two that come to mind are Suja (contains barley grass) and YumEarth licorice (contains glucose syrup derived from wheat). How did you decide it was safe to label these products as certified gluten-free?
A: When it comes to labeling, there are two separate federal regulations that apply. One is the FDA’s regulation that products labeled gluten-free must contain less than 20 ppm gluten. The other regulation pertains to allergens, and that regulation requires that labels disclose allergens, such as wheat, that may be contained in food.
Products can be labeled gluten free and contain an ingredient processed to remove gluten that was derived from wheat. If a product contains glucose syrup, for example, if it is derived from wheat, then the label must disclose the source of the syrup as an allergen. Glucose syrup is so highly refined that it no longer contains gluten protein, so it meets the FDA’s standard for gluten-free as well as GFCO’s 10 ppm standard for certification.
It is understandable why this labeling can be confusing to some consumers, and part of GIG’s mission is to promote education on matters like this so that consumers can better understand whether products are safe for them to eat.
Q: There has been a lot of misuse of your trademarked GF label, as well as a lot of companies designing their own GF labels that look official (like the label on Cheerios boxes – looks official, but it’s not). How do you combat label confusion in the marketplace?
A: We are very vigilant about protecting our trademarks and take the necessary steps to resolve any potential misuse of them if we become aware of a potential problem. As far as other gluten-free labels or logos go, the FDA does not regulate the use of logos on packages.
Companies can create their own logos; they just are not allowed to be confusingly similar to our trademarks or other trademarks that have priority under the trademark law. Just because a gluten-free logo looks official, it doesn’t mean the product has been certified by a third party. It may just be signifying the company’s own gluten-free claim.
Q: The FDA, and even many experts, say that people with celiac disease can “tolerate” 20 ppm of gluten, and the FDA says that there are no methods available that are scientifically validated to reliably detect gluten below 20 ppm. However, the GIG is able to detect products reliably under 10 ppm. How do your testing methods differ from the FDA?
A: It is important to remember that the FDA regulation went into effect in 2014 and it took them ten years to get to that point. During that time, there were no reliable tests that would test consistently below 20 ppm. Since that time, newer tests have been developed that will test down to 5 ppm consistently. We worked with manufacturers to determine what standard they could reliably meet given their processes and procedures and ultimately set 10 ppm as our standard as a result.
Q: It can be challenging for restaurants to accommodate GF diners, yet a few of them are doing it right (the ones you certify, for example). Why do you have such few restaurants listed on your website as certified gluten-free? Why do you think more restaurants aren’t seeking this kind of certification?
A: Unlike food manufacturers that are heavily regulated by the government and therefore used to documenting processes and procedures, food services are not. Formalizing these kinds of standards is not something many food service establishments feel they have time to do. However, more are starting to see the benefits of becoming gluten-free certified in terms of gaining customer trust and they are realizing that we can help them with developing the standards they need through the Gluten-Free Food Services (GFFS) Certification Program.
Q: A lot of restaurants are getting around the FDA gluten-free labeling laws by labeling their menus as a “Gluten Conscious Menu” or a “Gluten Sensitive Menu.” This is very confusing to gluten-free diners. How does your agency combat this marketplace confusion?
A: Educating the restaurants is the best way to combat this issue. We have many restaurants that we are working with because they are committed and see the value in doing it right. However, we know there are restaurants that still think it is OK to have dual practices for how they handle food depending on whether they are aware you have an allergy or gluten intolerance or eat gluten-free by choice.
There should only be one way to handle food if the restaurant is holding it out as something appropriate for someone wanting to avoid gluten. Again, it’s a matter of educating the restaurant or food service.
Q: I’d like to get a little bit inside the GFCO process. What is involved in getting a product certified with GFCO? How about a restaurant? Feel free to use an example.
A: For GFCO certification, food manufacturers submit an application which gives us a lot of detail about their products, the ingredients they use, their plant and procedures, etc. We examine how likely it is that ingredients contain gluten and perform an audit. Ultimately, the company must demonstrate that they meet our 80-plus standards for GFCO certification. If there are non-conformances or deficiencies, the company has to show corrective action before we will certify them.
Once a food manufacturer is certified, we establish a contract with them that specifies their minimum amount of required testing for products, raw materials and ingredients. We then do quarterly reviews of the plant testing and annual monitoring at their plants. We also pull product from the point of sale and do random, unannounced testing of those products to ensure they conform to our standard.
There is a similar application process for food services seeking certification by GFFS. We look at the policies and procedures they use to determine what is and is not gluten-free and measures they take to keep preparations safe for gluten-free diners. We also look at how they educate staff. As with the GFCO program, we perform audits and monitor certified restaurant practices over time.
Q: Cross contamination is very real and difficult for those on a strict gluten-free diet to navigate. This means so many people are afraid to eat out. What is the #1 thing you suggest diners do to minimize the risks of cross contamination when eating out?
A: It is important to speak with the wait staff and the restaurant manager. Explain your need and ask questions about how they will ensure your safety with their food preparations. Usually, it will quickly become evident whether the restaurant knows what they are talking about or not. If you are not comfortable with the answers given, don’t eat at the establishment.
Q: Are there any ingredients that the GFCO cannot detect when certifying products? Restaurants?
A: If we can’t reliably test an ingredient, we won’t certify it. A good example is cannabis. While we are reasonably certain it does not contain gluten, gluten testing has not been validated for use on cannabis. If there is not a valid way of testing its safety, we wouldn’t certify it.
Q: Testing for alcohol and fermented liquids is a hot button issue in the GF community. Is there a way to test products that contain alcohol or fermented items?
A: Testing alcohol and fermented liquids is a very tricky process. It requires testing in a laboratory. However, we have determined that attempts to remove gluten from a liquid, such as beer, does not work to our satisfaction.
Q: A lot of people call the gluten-free diet a fad diet or trend. What do you think? Do you think the industry will continue to grow, or eventually fizzle back to just those that are truly celiac?
A: I think we are well past gluten-free being a fad or trend. It is a lifestyle choice, just like being vegetarian or eating organic. Because of its growing popularity, we are seeing a lot more product choices and more consistent pricing with products, which benefits celiacs and non-celiacs following a gluten-free diet alike. While the industry is still showing growth, I do expect it to level out in the next several years. I don’t think we will see a decline.
Q: What is in the pipeline over at GFCO? What new programs or tools do you have in the works?
A: I can’t go into specifics, but we continue to engage in research studies to verify and validate food safety for both the manufacturing and food service sides of our organization.