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What Gluten-free really means

Did you know that gluten-free doesn’t always mean the same thing? When a café menu says some dishes are ‘gluten-free,’ it’s not the same as a gluten-free label on a food product. And gluten-free has different meanings in different countries, which is important when you’re travelling.

Put simply, when you buy a gluten-free packaged product in Australia, you’re pretty safe. The law says GF food products should have “no detectable gluten”, which in practical terms means less than about 3 ppm (parts per million) gluten. Food manufacturers typically undergo regular audits and must test their products for gluten. Although a 2018 Australian study found that one in 40 gluten-free supermarket products had small amounts of gluten, compliance levels are improving.

But when you order gluten-free in an Australian café, restaurant or fast food outlet, you have to trust the kitchen staff. Your meal won’t be tested for gluten content. Instead you’re relying on staff training and food handling practices that minimise accidental contamination from gluten-containing foods. Gluten contamination sometimes happens despite best intentions. Kitchen staff might use an ingredient that’s supposed to be gluten-free but isn’t. Or they might forget to be careful.

Another 2018 Australian study found gluten in 10 percent of gluten-free foods sold by restaurants and cafes. These foods didn’t meet the no-detectable-gluten standard. That’s four times the level of non-compliance found in the food products study.

If you’re gluten-free for medical reasons and want an extra layer of protection against gluten contamination symptoms, we recommend GluteGuard. Whenever you’re not sure a meal is really gluten-free, taking one GluteGuard tablet before you eat will may help prevent the symptoms of accidental gluten intake.

Gluten-free packaged food products

Australia and New Zealand have the world’s strictest gluten standards, set by their joint food standards agency FSANZ. Under the agency’s Food Standards Code (FSC), foods labelled ‘gluten-free’ must have no detectable gluten. In practical terms that means about 3 ppm (three milligrams per kilogram), which is what the latest laboratory equipment can detect. ‘Low-gluten’ food products in Australia and NZ must have less than 20 ppm gluten. Packaged food products cannot be labelled gluten-free or low-gluten unless they meet these standards.

In the UK, US and Europe, a packaged food labelled ‘gluten-free’ must have less than 20 milligrams of gluten per kilogram of that food (20 ppm gluten). That’s the same as ‘low-gluten’ in Australia and NZ. EU regulations also allow ‘very low gluten’ labels for products with less than 100 ppm.

Gluten-free meals from food businesses

Australia has national and state laws that govern food safety, and set out penalties for offences such as using false labels and descriptions. For example, if a food business gave you food that contained gluten when you asked for gluten-free food, that would be an offence. These laws are amended or updated as required.

Some states require businesses to appoint food safety supervisors. Their job is to prevent food poisoning. They’re not required to keep an eye on allergen or gluten content in foods.

Local city and shire councils enforce food safety laws by regularly inspecting cafes, restaurants, fast food outlets and other food businesses to ensure they comply with these laws. The food safety inspectors and environmental health officers who do these visits focus on food safety and hygiene. They take food samples if they think a business may have committed an offence under the relevant laws. However, it isn’t practical for them to take food samples from every business to test for allergens or gluten. Your local council can tell you more about what their inspectors look for.

Under the FSC and state legislation, businesses must provide food that is safe and suitable for their customers. However, the bottom line for gluten-free is that the onus is on food service businesses to comply with FSC requirements. While these businesses are regularly checked for food safety, there are no regular checks for compliance with FSC requirements for gluten-free.

Australian food businesses such as cafes, restaurants and fast food outlets might say that certain meals are gluten-free. When they do this, it’s their responsibility to ensure these meals meet the same FSC standard as packaged food products.

To comply with gluten-free and low-gluten standards, food businesses use separate utensils and cooking equipment. They store GF foods and ingredients above gluten-containing foods. Ideally they would also use dedicated GF preparation areas, but this might be impossible in a small kitchen.

The gold standard for ‘gluten-free’ products in Australia is rigorous assessment by Coeliac Australia (CA), which has an endorsement program for products that comply with the FSC. CA also provides resources to help food businesses ensure their meals are suitable for gluten-sensitive customers. This includes a rigorous gluten-free accreditation program. In June 2019, the Coeliac Australia website listed 23 accredited gluten-free food outlets in four states, mainly Victoria.

Gluten-free travel

Planning a trip? Check the gluten-free legislation in all the countries you might visit, and take GluteGuard with you. For example, it’s wise to be cautious with foods from street vendors and market stalls, which don’t have labels. In some countries, such as the US, restaurants and bakeries can choose for themselves whether to use gluten-free labelling. Carrying a bottle of GluteGuard when travelling may be helpful in reducing the risk of experiencing symptoms from hidden gluten in food.

Read our article on Traveling While Gluten-Free: Survival Guide

Gluten-free diet and GluteGuard

If you need to be on a gluten-free diet, stick to that diet. If you’re highly sensitive to trace amounts of gluten, a strict GFD is absolutely crucial. Consult your healthcare practitioner or a qualified dietitian for sound dietary advice.

We also recommend GluteGuard as an extra layer of protection, to help prevent the symptoms of accidental gluten consumption when you’re travelling, eating out, socialising or attending work events – for any occasion where food preparation is outside your control.

Contributor: Nancy Mills