Gluten-free products might not be all they appear to be after research found that some samples of gluten-free foods were found to contain gluten.
Although most of the gluten-free food tested had no detectable gluten, research from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Australia suggests that, in some cases, manufacturing processes could be improved to the benefit of consumers with celiac disease.
The study – published in the Medical Journal of Australia – tested 256 of commonly purchased manufactured foods labelled as ‘gluten-free’ at the National Measurement Institute in Melbourne.
If gluten was detected and confirmed with a follow up test, then a fresh sample was purchased and analysed to assess whether the contamination was isolated or affecting multiple batches.
The findings revealed that one in 40 foods labelled as ‘gluten-free’ did not comply with the national standard of ‘no detectable gluten’.
Dr Jason Tye-Din, head of coeliac research at the WEHI and gastroenterology consultant at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, said the results were important for coeliac patients whose health depended on a gluten-free diet.
“Patients with coeliac disease require a strict gluten-free diet for their treatment and should be able to trust that food labelled as ‘gluten-free’ is what it says it is,” he said.
“While it was pleasing to see that the majority of samples had no detectable gluten, the fact that gluten was detected in some samples tells us better processes could be put in place in the interests of people who require a gluten-free diet.
“For instance, the study found a ‘gluten-free’ pasta that contained more than 3mg of gluten in a standard single serve.
“This is a minimal amount but it could have a harmful impact on patients with coeliac disease if consumed frequently.”
Results from a previous study showed that 50mg of gluten consumed every day could cause small intestinal damage after three months of daily ingestion in people with coeliac disease, so while the risk with the pasta was low, precautions were still taken and the details of all the products with detected gluten were reported to food safety authorities.
Dr Tye-Din said while the companies could not be named, the researchers had notified the manufacturers of products containing detectable gluten to initiate a constructive dialogue about how their gluten-free food production processes could be improved.
“Unfortunately naming companies in the past has resulted in companies stopping their gluten-free food production altogether or using unhelpful “may contain traces of gluten” disclaimers on products,” he said.
“It is imperative for us to engage in a constructive dialogue with companies to help improve processes for the long-term.
“Our goal is for companies to produce gluten-free food compliant with the national standard so that it can be the safest it can be for people with coeliac disease or anyone who needs a strict gluten-free diet for their wellbeing.
“Ultimately, our aim is to reduce any risk of gluten exposure to people with coeliac disease.”
The study follows on from an earlier investigation that revealed one in 11 samples of ‘gluten-free’ foods sold at Melbourne restaurants and cafes were contaminated with gluten. The testing was conducted at 127 food businesses across the municipality.
The study was supported by Coeliac Australia and the Victorian and Australian Governments.