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What Does It Mean if Something Is Gluten-Free?

what does it mean if something is gluten-free
What is gluten-free? Learn about the FDA’s labeling system for gluten-free products, and who should avoid eating gluten

If a product is labeled gluten-free, it must contain no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. The U.S. FDA released voluntary labeling standards that manufacturers can use to indicate whether a product contains gluten, and gluten-free labeling can be added to products that have less than 20 ppm of gluten. 

The reason for this is that there are currently no analytical methods that have been scientifically validated to detect gluten at levels lower than 20 ppm. 

According to researchers and epidemiological evidence, most people with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy can tolerate trace amounts of gluten in foods containing less than 20 ppm gluten without experiencing negative health effects. 

However, people who want to avoid all gluten, even tiny traces of it, should be aware that gluten-free labeling does not guarantee that the product is completely gluten-free.

What does gluten do to the gut?

For people who have a gluten intolerance, gluten can interfere with nutrient digestion and absorption. This can cause undigested gluten to clump together in the intestine and lead to constipation. This undigested gluten can then stimulate the immune system to attack the lumps or fine mesh-like lining of the small intestine, which is typically a symptom of celiac disease.

Gluten consumption may also predispose people to increased small intestine damage and inflammation, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies, anemia, osteoporosis, and other health problems. 

Generally, people may try to avoid gluten because it can cause:

Who should avoid gluten?

Celiac disease

When someone with celiac disease eats foods containing gluten, their immune system reacts, damaging their small intestine. As a result, other nutrients are less likely to be absorbed.

Eating gluten with celiac disease can cause symptoms such as:

However, symptoms are not limited just to the gastrointestinal system. Other symptoms may include:

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a relatively new condition in which a person has a negative reaction to gluten but does not have celiac disease. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity may cause symptoms similar to celiac disease, but it does not destroy the small intestine. 

Wheat allergy

Several wheat proteins have been linked to traditional food allergies and sensitivities. It occurs when the immune system misidentifies wheat as a pathogen, which causes an allergic reaction. This can cause a variety of symptoms, including difficulty breathing.


According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.”
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Should you go gluten-free?

Despite recent health claims, not everyone needs to cut gluten out of their diet unless they have a gluten intolerance. Those with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy should consult a doctor before making any dietary changes. 

While it may be fashionable, going gluten-free is not necessarily healthy. Gluten-free diets typically have lower levels of dietary fiber, folate, niacin, and vitamin B12. So people who follow a gluten-free diet on a long-term basis should take extra precautions to ensure they are getting enough of these essential nutrients.

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