Gluten free foods and Coeliac Disease

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Around 1% of people in the UK have coeliac disease, sometimes referred to as gluten intolerance. This is a lifelong autoimmune disease which is caused by the immune system reacting to gluten. This makes labelling claims about gluten in foods an important issue.

Knowing about labelling is not the only concern, it is also vital that if you are preparing or handling food that you also know about this problem and be very careful when serving a person with this condition. If food is contaminated or mistakenly given to someone then they can react in minutes with a swollen stomach, extreme pain and cramps. This then can lead to other problems affecting the person sometimes for days to fully recover. Allergies like peanuts are taken very seriously but this is equally as important although not life-threatening.

Gluten can be found in any product containing wheat but this can extend to frozen chips that have gluten in them to help with cooking, sauces, or contamination of surfaces.

The European Commission, using recent internationally recognised scientific evidence, has introduced labelling standards that set levels of gluten for foods claiming to be either 'gluten-free' or 'very low gluten', which came into force in January 2012.

These levels are:

  • 'gluten-free': at 20 parts per million of gluten or less
  • 'very low gluten': at 100 parts per million of gluten or less - however, only foods with cereal ingredients that have been specially processed to remove the gluten may make a 'very low gluten' claim

These regulations apply to all foods, pre-packed or sold loose, such as in health food stores or in catering establishments. 

The new labelling standards are an important public health measure to help protect the long-term health of coeliacs. These labelling standards will enable coeliacs to make informed choices about the foods that are safe for them to eat.

Where caterers are unable to justify 'gluten-free' or 'very low gluten' claims because of the risk of cross-contamination, if steps have been taken to control this contamination, caterers will be able to indicate which foods do not have gluten-containing ingredients, allowing coeliacs to make choices based on their individual levels of sensitivity.

To help industry and enforcement authorities understand the new rules and encourage the provision of information for coeliacs, the Food Standards Agency has developed two sets of guidance. One covers compliance with the Regulations, and the other gives advice to caterers on providing gluten information for unpackaged foods. The Agency has also developed information for consumers to help raise awareness of the rules that came into force in January 2012. 

We have put links to these documents in the student download area of this site.