Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

How Much Gluten Is in “Gluten-Free” Food?

A study of foods labelled “gluten-free” (GF) has found that some foods produced overseas do not comply with Australian standards that require GF-labelled foods to contain “no detectable gluten”.

Coeliac disease is the only common disease for which strict dietary compliance to a GF diet is the sole treatment. Sensitivity to gluten varies between coeliac disease patients, with levels in food less than 1 ppm protecting most patients. Despite this, international food codes only require foods labelled gluten-free to contain less than 20 ppm gluten.

To find out how much gluten was present in imported GF products, Prof Geoff Forbes of The University of Western Australia tested the gluten content in 169 GF-labelled food items manufactured overseas and sold locally. These included crackers, bread and biscuits (41 items), cereals, flour and grains (37), condiments and sauces (30), spices (21), pasta (16), drinks and soups (15) and confectionary and snacks (nine). The results were published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Gluten was detected in 24 products, but at very low levels in all. Twenty items had detectable but unquantifiable levels of gluten (less than 1 ppm), and four had quantifiable levels (three with 1.0 ppm and one with 1.1 ppm).

“Our findings have important implications. Firstly, despite tiny traces of gluten being found in 14% of the foods tested, coeliac disease patients can confidently consume GF products purchased in Australia,” Forbes said. “Secondly, a marked tightening of international GF standards is readily achievable by industry.”

Forbes said the study also showed that standards in Australia were impractical. “We recommended that Australian authorities revise the current Australian standard of ‘no detectable gluten’ to ‘1 ppm or less’ as it is not practical or reasonable for industry to comply with the current Australian standard,” he said.