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 in general and there is little regulation of the industry. Some brands even create their own official-looking certified gluten-free seals that often 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, and, as a smart shopper, you must be able to decipher what gluten-free certifications and seals are official, and which are not. It is up to you to know this information.
FDA Gluten-Free Labeling Laws
Let’s first talk a little bit about what the FDA says on this matter.
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 Mill’s Cheerios. 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!).
Official Gluten-Free Certifications & Seals
A product that is certified gluten-free will bear one of the following four gluten-free certification seals as certified by a third-party agency:
(1) The Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) via 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.
(2) National Celiac Association: The appearance of this seal on packaging means the product is free from wheat, barley, rye and non-certified GF 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.
(3) NSF International: 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 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 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.)
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, not a third-party.
(Please note that given the problems with Cheerios over the years, I do not eat Cheerios. 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 these seals, and not allow yourself to be duped by slick designs and tricky marketing messages. You must decode the truth, take the time to learn about what is and isn’t safe, and be an advocate for change in your community.