Explaining Gluten Free
The Food Allergy team at the Food Standards Agency explain the new regulations which came into force on January 1st 2012.

For an explanatory fact sheet for consumers, click here.

It is estimated that 1 person in 100 has gluten intolerance (which is more commonly known as coeliac disease). However, it is thought that only about 10–15% of people with the condition have been clinically diagnosed. When people with coeliac disease eat foods containing gluten, it damages the lining of their small intestine, which stops the body from absorbing nutrients.

Gluten is found in a number of cereals including wheat, rye and barley and anyone with coeliac disease should avoid foods made from these cereals, including most types of bread, pasta, pizza, pastry, biscuits and cakes. However, these cereals are used in many less obvious foods, such as some sausages, burgers, sauces, stock cubes, salad dressings and of course any foods cooked in batter or breadcrumbs. Most people with this condition also need to avoid alcoholic drinks made from barley, such as beer and lager. Good labelling is essential so that anyone wishing to avoid gluten can identify these ‘hidden’ ingredients. 

'Gluten-free foods'

These days you will find an aisle in most supermarkets dedicated to foods which are described as gluten free or ‘suitable for coeliacs’. There has been no legislation controlling the meaning of these terms until now. Therefore, the food industry has been working to a voluntary standard which originally meant that foods described as ‘gluten free’ could contain up to 200 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, although more recently businesses have been moving to a revised standard of 20 ppm. This gluten can come from cross-contamination during the production of the food, rather than from deliberate ingredients and consequently is not declared on the label. The majority of people with coeliac disease do not realise that they are consuming gluten in these products, and in fact, many believe that they are completely free of all gluten. 

Whilst many people following a gluten free diet are able to eat these products and not suffer any of the immediate ill effects, there is growing concern that this level of exposure may have an effect on long-term health. Failure to eliminate gluten from the diet can lead to bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and recurrent stomach pain in the short term. It can also cause tiredness, skin rashes, depression, infertility, miscarriages and malnutrition, and can lead to anaemia, osteoporosis and some gut cancers. In addition, if undiagnosed, it can cause growth problems in children. 

Allergen legislation – 2005

When the allergen legislation was introduced in 2005 the rules stated that any pre-packed food containing wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut (or any strain or crossbred-variety of these cereals) must declare the gluten-containing cereal ingredient on the label of pre-packed foods.

More recently, the rules on labelling foods specially prepared for people with coeliac disease have changed. A new European Commission Regulation concerning the composition and labelling of foodstuffs suitable for people with coeliac disease was introduced in January 2009 to better protect the long term health of people with coeliac disease. It lays down rules about the use of the terms 'gluten-free' and 'very low gluten' and these two terms now have very specific meanings. 

New rules on 'gluten-free' and 'very low gluten'

From 1 January 2012, any product marketed either as ‘gluten-free’ or ‘very low gluten’ must comply with stringent standards. 'Gluten-free' means that the product contains 20 parts per million (ppm) or less of gluten. Most people with coeliac disease are able to eat foods containing this amount of gluten without any adverse health effects. Levels higher than this can make some people with coeliac disease unwell and affect their long term health.

Gluten helps give bread type products that elastic, spongy texture we are all familiar with. To enable those people wishing to avoid gluten to have the choice of bread, cake, pizza bases etc with some of these qualities, food manufacturers can use a special type of starch that has been treated to remove almost all of the gluten.  Foods containing such an ingredient can be described as ‘very low gluten’ provided that they contain no more than 100 ppm of gluten. However, it is not intended that someone with coeliac disease should eat a lot of these foods on a daily basis as they may make them unwell. 

Even where gluten-containing ingredients are not used, cross-contamination with gluten containing products/ingredients during transportation, storage or production may mean that some foods will not be able to meet these new rules. If food businesses are not able to make a ‘gluten-free’ or ‘very low gluten’ claim on their products, they may choose to tell customers that the food does not contain any ingredients which contain gluten by labelling the food with a factual statement, such as ‘no gluten containing ingredients’. Those customers wishing to avoid gluten can then decide for themselves whether or not to eat such products. If the business does this, they should make sure they have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that cross-contamination with gluten containing ingredients has not occurred. They are not allowed to make any indication of the amount of gluten in the product or imply that it is suitable for someone with coeliac disease. 

So that consumers fully understand the meaning of factual statements such as ‘no gluten containing ingredients’, businesses may also choose to provide further information on the processes used to control cross-contamination, alongside this phrase. Such further information could also be provided on websites, leaflets etc.

What foods do these rules apply to?

These new rules also apply to any food sold non-prepacked, for example in a restaurant, from a take away or deli counter. As with the pre-packed foods, it is possible that those selling non-prepacked foods may be unable to meet the new gluten standards and they may opt to tell those customers wishing to avoid gluten that the food does not contain any gluten containing ingredients. Restaurants and take aways are being encouraged to use the same factual statements as those used by food manufacturers for pre-packed foods so that the customers will see consistent messages in different situations and be able to choose appropriate foods with confidence.

Of course, as with manufacturers, if a restaurant or take away decides to highlight that a particular dish does not contain any gluten containing ingredients, all steps should be taken to control cross-contamination in food preparation and serving areas.

Those wishing to avoid gluten should look out for the new labelling on both pre-packed foods and on menus and make sure they understand what these new phrases mean. They should also try to find out about the level of gluten contamination that may be present in any foods labelled as ‘no gluten containing ingredients’. Food producers have until 1 January 2012 to change their labels/menus but until that date there may be a mix of old and new labels on foods. Consumers should be aware of this and ask if they have any doubt as to the amount of gluten in the food. 

For more information on allergies and intolerances in general please see our website – www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthissues/foodintolerance/

Dionne Davey, Sue Hattersley, Sarah Hardy


First published in January 2011; updated January 2012.


Click here for more articles on the management of coeliac disease


Back to top

If you found this article interesting, you will find many more general articles and research reports on coeliac disease here, and lots of information on the management of coeliac disease here.
You can also find articles and research reports on gluten intolerance here and articles on a wide range of other digestive conditions here.

For hundreds of gluten free foods see our freefrom food section here, and for nearly 800 gluten-free recipes see here.

And if you would like to get our FREE fortnightly e-newsletter with new products, recipes, articles and all the latest news from the allergy and freefrom world, just sign up here.