It wasn't until a National Institutes of Health symposium in 2003 that food manufacturers and retailers truly became aware of gluten intolerance and its more debilitating variant, celiac disease, which afflicts an estimated one in every 133 Americans. The condition, caused by a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients.
Some progressive producers reformulated recipes, and manufacturers already specializing in allergen-free foods increased their availability to retailers. Today, a typical supermarket may carry up to 100 gluten-free items, scattered throughout all departments. As the stockkeeping units continue to multiply, the Gluten Intolerance Group is moving ahead with a special certification program and logo to bring some sense of order to the category.
"We embraced a lot of the criteria for kosher certification, like the on-site inspections, including surprise checks," said Cynthia Kupper, executive director of Seattle-based GIG. Products will also be purchased off the shelf for surprise testing.
The Gluten-Free Certification Organization set an extremely low threshold of 10 parts per million, even after a major study of celiac disease showed reactions don't occur until the ingestion of quantities of 100 ppm or more. Europe's Codex Alimentarius Commission sets the limit at 200 ppm. The Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to issue a draft definition of "gluten-free" by next summer, will likely set a limit closer to GIG's.
"We decided that 10 ppm was more than adequately safe," Kupper said. "There are test kits that detect lower levels, but the reality of chasing molecules at that point seems unrealistic, and it just increases the cost to the manufacturer."