The Fiscal Times

August 6, 2014sponsors

What Happened. The Food and Drug Administration created a new standard for gluten-free food labeling. Any packaged food that is labeled “gluten free” must now contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, the protein that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley and their derivatives. The 20 ppm is the lowest level that can be reliably detected (other countries use the same criteria). The tiny amount satisfies the medical and scientific communities in terms of safety for those who cannot eat gluten.

The ruling will help the 3 million Americans who suffer from celiac disease, a chronic autoimmune disorder. For these people, eating foods with gluten can inflame and destroy the small intestine – blocking critical absorption of minerals and nutrients – and until now consumers with the disease couldn’t tell if something slapped with the term “gluten free” was actually gluten free enough.

Symptoms of celiac disease, an inherited illness, include chronic diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, iron-deficiency anemia, bone and joint pain, cramping, bloating, and more. Some people have no symptoms at all but feel generally unwell.

There is no cure for celiac disease – “which is actually a disease, as opposed to an eating preference,” Marilyn G. Geller, CEO of Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF), told The Fiscal Times on Wednesday. “The only treatment at present is to follow a strict gluten-free diet.”

Dietitian and nutrition expert Ellie Krieger told MSNBC, “You’ll see a lack of growth in children [with celiac disease] … It’s very serious.”

Why It Matters.The gluten-free market has exploded in the past few years, partly because of increased awareness of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, but also because “eating gluten free” has become a trendy lifestyle choice. Most gluten-free foods are more expensive than others due to certification requirements, but they’re also far more accessible than before.

In 2012 alone, the “retail market was estimated at $4.2 billion, according to Packaged Facts, a marketing research firm,” USA Today reported. By 2017, Packaged Facts has estimated “that sales will exceed $6.6 billion.” Another market research firm, Mintel, estimates that sales of gluten-free foods and beverages will soar to $15.6 billion in 2016.

With the new FDA standard, however, foods that are naturally gluten free – such as fruits and vegetables – can also be labeled gluten free. “When people put together the numbers on the gluten-free marketplace, right now we can’t tell if they’re including the naturally gluten-free foods or the foods that are being specially prepared, packaged and labeled gluten free,” says Geller of CDF.

While 11 percent of American households follow a gluten-free diet, about 1 in 4 consumers believe gluten free is good for everyone, says research firm NPD Group. “Clearly a segment of the population avoids gluten for reasons other than gluten sensitivity or disease, providing a greater opportunity for food manufacturers and retailers,” said Darren Seifer, an NPD food and beverage analyst.

What It Means for You. Consumers who must eat foods without gluten can now be confident the packaged foods they buy are “strictly gluten free and can be tolerated for their medical conditions,” says Geller.

While the new rule applies to packaged food, restaurant menu items are still a bit of a wild card. The FDA has said only that food establishments should try to keep any gluten-free labels consistent with the new regulation.

A blood test for celiac disease is covered by insurance; the out-of-pocket cost is about $30 for most people, says Geller of CDF. “It’s simple, inexpensive and the first step in testing” for celiac disease. A more expensive follow-up endoscopic biopsy is the only way to confirm a diagnosis.

The Mayo Clinic says those with gluten issues, aside from avoiding barley, rye, wheat and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), must also avoid a wide range of foods unless they’re clearly labeled gluten free, including breads, cakes, candies, pies, cereals, French fries, pastas, processed luncheon meat and salad dressings.

This article originally appeared in The Fiscal Times