Buyer Beware: Naturally Gluten Free Grains May Not Be Safe

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May 5, 2011

For those who are gluten intolerant or suffer from Celiac disease, one of the first challenges is finding an alternative to traditional wheat flour. With so many "naturally" gluten free grains, the choices are many and varied - from quinoa to millet, tapioca to sorghum, there are literally dozens of naturally gluten free grains to choose from. But what does "naturally gluten free" mean? In the case of oats, we know that while oats, as a grain, do not contain gluten, because they are harvested and processed on the same equipment as gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley and rye) the gluten-content of ordinary oats can range anywhere between 300-1800 ppm, that's 15x-90x the defined limit for gluten free foods. Oats aside, what about other grains and flours? Do you worry that your brown rice flour or tapioca starch may contain more than trace amounts of gluten? Should you?

In a recent study, dietitian Tricia Thompson (MS, RD), with Anne Lee and Thomas Grace, examined the gluten levels of "naturally gluten free" grains, seeds and flours. They tested 22 products (including white rice and flour, brown rice, corn meal, polenta, buckwheat and buckwheat flour, amaranth seed and flour, flax seed, millet grain and flour, sorghum flour, and soy flour) none of which were actively labeled gluten free, and found that "32% of samples tested contained mean gluten levels above 20 ppm with amounts ranging from 25 to 2,925 ppm." If that doesn't make you think twice, I'm not sure what will. Why did Thompson & Co. conduct the study? Because of the proposed change to FDA labeling standards. According to the study, "the FDA’s proposed rule for labeling of food as gluten free, single ingredient foods, such as corn, rice, and millet are considered inherently gluten free. These grains will be considered misbranded if they carry a gluten-free label that does not also state that all foods of that same type are gluten free (e.g. “all millet is gluten free” or “millet, a gluten-free food”)" Of course, the results of the pilot study inherently call the accuracy and safety of this proposed labeling standard into question. So what do you think - do you buy naturally gluten free grains that aren't certified gluten free?

Photo by mr bologna.