That substance is gluten. Breads, cakes, cereals, pastas, and many other foods are made with wheat or added wheat gluten to improve their baking quality and texture.
Technically, gluten represents specific proteins that occur naturally in wheat. However, the term "gluten" is commonly used to refer to certain proteins that occur naturally not only in wheat, but also in rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains and that can harm people who have celiac disease. The only treatment for this disorder is a life-long gluten-free diet.
Eating gluten doesn't bother most consumers, but some people with celiac disease have health-threatening reactions, says Stefano Luccioli, M.D., a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allergist and immunologist. They need to know whether a food contains gluten.
FDA has been working to define "gluten-free" to:
- eliminate uncertainty about how food producers may label their products.
- assure consumers who must avoid gluten that foods labeled "gluten-free" meet a clear standard established and enforced by FDA.
On this date:
- FDA reopens the public comment period on its proposed gluten-free labeling rule published on Jan. 23, 2007.
- FDA makes available, and seeks comments on, a report on the health effects of gluten in people with celiac disease. The report includes a safety assessment on levels of gluten sensitivity in people with the disease.
According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease affects as many as 1 percent of the U.S. population.
The disease occurs when the body's natural defense system reacts to gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine. Without a healthy intestinal lining, the body cannot absorb the nutrients it needs. Delayed growth and nutrient deficiencies can result and may lead to conditions such as anemia and osteoporosis. Other serious health problems may include diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and intestinal cancers.
"Some people don't get immediate symptoms, but when they do, they are typically gastrointestinal-related, such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea," says Luccioli. "In infants, there may be a lot of vomiting, and they don't grow and thrive." And some people do not have any symptoms at all, adds Luccioli, but still may have intestinal damage and risk for long-term complications. It is important for individuals with celiac disease, who may vary in their sensitivity to gluten, to discuss their dietary needs with their health care professional.
Grocery shopping is challenging for people with this disease, says Andrea Levario, J.D., executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance. "When they find a product labeled 'gluten-free,' they don't necessarily know what that means because today there is no federal standard for the use of this term."
Having a federal definition of "gluten-free" is critically important, says Levario. "If we have one national standard, the individual will know that all products labeled 'gluten-free' will have no more than a minimal amount of gluten."
Some foods are naturally free of gluten. Here are some examples:
- milk not flavored with ingredients that contain gluten, such as malt
- 100-percent fruit or vegetable juices
- fresh fruits and vegetables
- seeds, such as flax
- tree nuts, such as almonds
- non-gluten-containing grains, such as corn
- fresh fish, such as cod
- fresh shellfish, such as clams
- water, including bottled, distilled, and spring