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FDA sets guidelines on gluten-free foods

Gluten-free diets are the new black.

They’re a bit mysterious and sexy, and pricey with hints of secret benefits. And as this trend continues to soar and confuse, the government has come in to assist with guidelines on what foods can proudly and profitably wear the gluten-free label.

The gluten-free market is a $4.2 billion industry that is estimated to grow to $6.6 billion by 2017, according to Packaged Facts.

The Food and Drug Administration started examining gluten-free foods in 2007. Six years later, it has finally come to a consensus: For a food to be labeled gluten free, the gluten limit has to be less than 20 parts per million. That translates to a food containing less than .002 percent gluten.

Expert opinion is that this minimal amount of gluten would not be harmful to someone with celiac disease. The FDA will allow manufacturers to label a food “gluten-free” if the food does not contain any of the following:

• An ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of these grains

• An ingredient derived from these grains that has not been processed to remove gluten

• An ingredient derived from these grains that has been processed to remove gluten, it if results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million.

A federal standard on gluten-free labeling is of great benefit to people with celiac disease and those with gluten sensitivity. I suspect it will also be a marketing tool for products that have never contained gluten.

But this is what is important to remember: Being gluten-free does not make a product healthier. It is the nutrients that are in a product, not what is missing, that promotes health.

Gluten free does not mean calorie-free; some gluten-free products have more calories than their wheat-based counterparts.

Celiac disease is clearly diagnosed with a blood test and biopsy. The question of gluten sensitivity is confusing and controversial.

My next column will provide an evidence-based review of gluten sensitivity. Stay tuned.

Sheah Rarback is a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @sheahrarback.

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