This post, What Does Certified Gluten-Free Mean?, may contain affiliate links. It was last updated June 2019.
Understanding whether or not something is certified gluten-free can be confusing for someone new to the gluten-free diet.
In fact, the world of gluten-free eating can be very confusing and there is little regulation of the industry. Some brands even create their own official-looking certified gluten-free seals that can confuse even the most educated of gluten-free shoppers. More on that later…
The truth is, if a product doesn’t bear one of the following certified gluten-free seals, the product is NOT certified gluten-free.
However, what does certified gluten-free mean anyway? And if a product doesn’t bear a certified gluten-free seal, can it still be considered gluten-free? Let’s discuss.
FDA Gluten-Free Labeling Laws
In August 2014, the U.S. FDA set a gluten limit of 20 parts per million (ppm) in foods labeled as “gluten-free,” “without gluten,” “free of gluten” or “no gluten.” Food manufacturers had one year from the date the rule was published to bring their labels into compliance with the new requirements (so all companies should be in compliance now.)
For the most part, industry is regulating itself when it comes to what products are gluten-free, and which are not. A manufacturer can label its products “gluten-free” if it contains less than 20 ppms and meets all of the other FDA gluten-free labeling standards. Again, this is self-regulated.
The FDA only gets involved in potential false claims when there is a complaint.
Hundreds of consumers lodged complaints against General Mills Cheerios several years ago. The company recalled 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios because they contained more than 20 ppm of gluten (a cautionary tale to manufacturers and consumers alike!).
However, for the most part, products that bear the “gluten-free” claim are gluten-free per FDA labeling standards.
How Did the FDA Come Up with 20 PPM?
The FDA says it came up with the 20 ppms limit due in part to testing limitations and due in part to how much gluten a person with celiac disease can tolerate without causing an autoimmune reaction.
We know that this information may not be 100 percent accurate today because testing is more accurate today. In fact, third-party certification agencies, which we’ll discuss below, can confidently certify products at “gluten-free” if they contain less than 10 ppm (not 20 ppm as set by the FDA).
Additionally, we know that ever person with celiac disease is different. Some may be able to tolerate a trace amount of gluten while others cannot. The FDA is making a sweeping claim, an one that is not true for everyone.
The Gluten-Free Dietician says that 20 ppm is the same as .002 percent or 20 milligrams of gluten per 1 kilogram of food or 20 milligrams of gluten per 35.27 ounces of food. This means that a slice of bread could be labeled “gluten-free” even if it contained 0.57 milligrams of gluten.
A product that is certified gluten-free means the product has been verified as gluten-free by a third-party agency. Manufacturers pay these agencies to test their products. They also pay these agencies to license the “Certified GF” label.
By far, the largest certifying agency is the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, which is a part of the Gluten Intolerance Group. However, we are seeing additional certifying agencies pop up today. While competition is good, it may create more consumer confusion.
Here are the current third-party certifying agencies:
(1) The Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), part of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG)
This is hands down the most popular product gluten-free certification seal you’ll see on the market today. If a product bears this seal, it means the product has less than 10 ppm of gluten in it.
GIG certifies hundreds of products each year. For a complete list of products certified gluten-free by GFCO, visit GIG online.
The appearance of this seal on packaging means the product is free from wheat, barley, rye and non-certified gluten-free oats or that the gluten has been removed from the final product. Products carrying NCA’s Recognition Seal test at 5 ppm of gluten or less.
NSF International gluten-free certification assures consumers that the product does not contain gluten over the FDA’s allowable limit of 20 parts per million (ppm) and that it is manufactured in a facility that prevents cross-contamination.
Gluten-Free Certification Confusion
Now take a look at common brands around your house? What do you see? I’m certain you see many of the above mentioned seals, particularly the black and white circle with the GF in the middle.
You probably see other potentially official-looking seals too, right?
It’s not uncommon for companies to design their own gluten-free seals to make consumers think their products are certified gluten-free, when indeed they are not. They might do this because, as you know, a gluten-free certification instills instant recognition and trust among gluten-free shoppers.
Take for example Bob Red Mill’s gluten-free products. These products are not certified gluten-free by a third party. The red GF seal on the below packaging is just a design Bob’s Red Mill puts on its packaging, not an official gluten-free certification or seal.
(Please note that Bob’s Red Mill has separate gluten-free manufacturing facilities and takes a lot of time and energy catering to its gluten-free consumer. Do I trust this company? Yes. Additionally, as of June 2019, Bob’s Red Mill is adding the certified GF labels to its packaging – yay!)
Another product that has its own gluten-free seal (not an official third-party gluten-free certification) is Cheerios. Take a look at the “gluten-free” seal on the package – this is designed by General Mills’ marketing team, not a third-party certification agency.
(Please note that given the problems with Cheerios over the years, I do not eat Cheerios. However, they are considered gluten-free per FDA labeling laws. Read Are Cheerios Gluten-Free?)
What’s a Gluten-Free Shopper to Do?
The world of gluten-free shopping is confusing and unfortunately isn’t regulated as well as it could be.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to be an educated, smart gluten-free shopper. You must know and understand what different gluten-free claims and seals mean, and not allow yourself to be duped by slick designs and tricky marketing messages.
You must decode each gluten-free claim, one by one, and take the time to learn about what is and isn’t safe. Be an advocate for change in your community – and that starts by speaking with your wallet.