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FDA sets requirements for 'gluten free'

HIBBING -- A recent announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is giving reassurance to individuals living with celiac disease.

On Aug. 2, the FDA announced a new standard for food labels that will make shopping easier for individuals on gluten-restricted diets.

Until now, the term "gluten free" had not been regulated, and manufacturers made their own decisions about what it means.

Under the new rule, products labeled "gluten free" will need to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley and their derivatives.

Gluten is a name for proteins found within these grains that can be harmful to people with celiac disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation website.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where a person develops antibodies to the gluten proteins. When they eat foods containing gluten, their immune system reacts by attacking the lining of the small intestine, said Karen Johnson, a clinical dietitian for St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. She also works with individuals through the Northland Celiac support group, which meets quarterly in Duluth.

When the antibodies attack the small intestine, a person with celiac disease has trouble absorbing nutrients, which can lead to diarrhea and more severe health problems.

Even a small amount of gluten in foods can affect individuals with celiac disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation website.

Celiac disease is an inherited condition that affects about 1 percent of the population or about 3 million people in the United States. It can be triggered at any time in an individual's lifetime, Johnson said.

Individuals can be born with certain gene that gives them a propensity for celiac disease, which is then triggered by something -- stress, trauma or viral infection, she said.

It occurs in 5 to 15 percent of the offspring and siblings of individuals with the disease, and family members of celiac sufferers are encouraged to be tested -- even if they are asymptomatic.

Celiac disease causes abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea, and people who have it can suffer weight loss, fatigue, rashes and other long- term medical problems. Celiacsis a diagnosed illness that is more severe than gluten sensitivity, which some people self-diagnose.

Under an FDA rule announced this month, products labeled "gluten free" still won't have to be technically free of wheat, rye and barley and their derivatives. But they will have to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Only a very small number of people wouldn't be able to ingest the amount of gluten that will be allowed under the new rule, FDA officials said.

The 20 parts per million is the lowest amount of gluten that can be stably detected in food, Johnson said.

The new FDA rule also would ensure that foods with the labels "no gluten," "free of gluten," and "without gluten" meet the definition. Manufacturers will have a year to comply, though the FDA urged companies to meet the definition sooner.

The Northland Celiac group meets about four times a year to talk about their experiences and new research they've discovered about the condition. The group draws participants from throughout northeastern Minnesota, including the Iron Range, and northwestern Wisconsin.

Much of the group's discussions center around food products.

This new labeling requirement is very helpful for individuals with celiac disease because a gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease, Johnson said, adding that it could also help individuals who don't have the condition but still try to limit gluten in their diet.

Individuals with celiac disease become very good at reading labels and knowing what the ingredients mean, but having a standardized definition of "gluten free" will make it quicker to look at those labels, she said.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a product contains gluten because there was no standard for items labeled "gluten free," she said.

Also, wheat must be labeled on food packages, but barley and rye are often hidden ingredients in food. The standard also ensures that products that are cross-contaminated by other products made in the same facility can't be labeled as "gluten free", said Andrea Levario of the American Celiac Disease Alliance.

Even with the new labeling coming into effect, Johnson encourages those with celiac disease to continue to learn about the disease and seek out a support group like Northland Celiac.

The new FDA rule comes several years after Congress originally directed the organization to set the standard in 2004 as part of a larger law requiring food packaging to list major allergens.

In the time since that recommendation, gluten-free foods have become big business in the United States.

Millions of people buy the foods because they say they make them feel better, even if they don't have celiac disease.

Americans spent more than $4 billion on gluten-free foods last year, according to the American Celiac Disease Alliance, and a major manufacturing survey issued in early August suggested that the niche industry is giving an economic boost to the food industry overall.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.