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Gluten free

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other cereals. If you have gluten intolerance (also known as coeliac disease) you need to know if the foods you buy have gluten in them. So what manufacturers put on their food labels is very important. People with coeliac disease can safely eat small amounts of gluten, but sensitivities vary between individuals. The most recent research suggests that if you have coeliac disease and eat a lot of products with levels up to 100 parts of gluten per million in a day, this can damage the lining of the gut. But eating small amounts of these products is still thought to be safe.

Gluten labelling

Legally, manufacturers do not have to say how much gluten is present in the food on the label.

The rules about the phrases used on foods to show that they are suitable for people with gluten intolerance have changed. The phrases 'gluten free' and 'very low gluten' now have very specific meanings and can only be used on certain foods.

Many of the special foods suitable for people with coeliac disease use substitute ingredients such as rice or maize to replace the gluten-containing cereals such as wheat. Other special foods contain wheat that has almost all the gluten taken out.

What levels of gluten are allowed in 'gluten free' and 'very low gluten' foods?

There are a number of reasons why it's difficult to make foods that are completely free of gluten. One reason is the possible cross contamination in factories with other products containing wheat, barley or rye.

Under the new rules 'gluten free' means that the product contains 20 parts of gluten or less per million. Most people with coeliac disease are able to eat foods with this very low level of gluten without any adverse health effects. This level is so low that it is unlikely to cause a reaction in the majority of people – 20 parts of gluten in a million is equivalent to one teaspoon of flour in a gigantic 600kg (1,200lb) bag of flour.

Gluten helps give bread an elastic quality and a chewy texture. In order to have bread, pizza bases etc with some of these qualities, a second category of products labelled as 'very low gluten' has been allowed. This category will include only those products that are manufactured using a special type of starch that has been treated to take out almost all of the gluten. Products in this category will have a higher level of gluten in them of up to 100 parts per million. While there is more gluten in these products, it is not intended that you should eat a lot of food in this category on a daily basis.

The new claims on the labels will help you to choose mainly those foods that are 'gluten free' and fewer of the ones marked 'very low gluten'. Not everyone will be able to eat foods marked 'very low gluten' because 100 parts per million will make them unwell, so it's important to speak to a doctor or dietitian before introducing them into your diet for the first time.

It is possible that some manufacturers will not be able to meet these levels because other products they are making have contaminated a pre-packed food during its transportation, storage or production. In these cases, hey may decide to tell you that the food does not contain any gluten-containing ingredients and leave it to you to decide whether the level of accidental contamination of the food is too high for you to eat. here will not be any indication of the amount of gluten in the product so you might feel that it is not worth taking a risk.

These new levels also apply to any food you may buy in a restaurant, from a take away or deli counter. It is possible that these establishments will not be able to meet these strict controls and, as with the pre-packed foods, will opt to tell you that the food doesn't contain any gluten-containing ingredients. You will then have to decide for yourself whether the food might have accidently been contaminated with something containing gluten during preparation. For example, you might decide that somewhere that makes a lot of fresh pizzas might not be able to keep some of the flour they use out of your meal and therefore it is best if you do not eat there.

Manufacturers of pre-packed foods can keep using their old labels until January 2012, so until this time you may find lots of different labelling terms used on these foods.

Is it safe for people with coeliac disease to eat the foods they already eat?

It's important to know that although the labels on some foods may change from 'gluten free' to 'very low gluten', the level of gluten in the product may not have changed. So, if you have coeliac disease and have been eating a particular food safely, that food should still be suitable. However, some products that were once labelled as 'gluten free' or 'suitable for coeliacs' may no longer be allowed to use these phrases if the amounts of gluten in them are not low enough to meet the new rules.

As a result, manufacturers might change their recipes and/or processes. This could mean that although people with coeliac disease have been able to eat certain foods in the past, these are no longer suitable.

It is possible to find out whether a food contains gluten or gluten-containing ingredients by checking the ingredients list. Anyone who is at all unsure about whether they can still eat a food, should contact the manufacturer. In addition, many of the supermarkets produce lists based on the gluten content of the foods they sell. These will either show whether the food is 'gluten free', 'very low gluten' or made from ingredients that do not contain gluten.

Coeliac UK produces a directory that shows whether certain foods are 'gluten free', 'very low gluten' or made from ingredients that do not contain gluten.

Some baby foods have statements on their labels about whether they contain gluten - the law says that all foods for babies under six months old must have this information on the label. In addition, all baby formulas are gluten free. This allows parents in families with a history of coeliac disease to avoid gluten-containing products. The Department of Health has recommended that to prevent coeliac disease, gluten should not be given to infants who are under six months old.

When will I start to see the changes to the labels?

Businesses have until January 2012 before they are legally obliged to change their labels. Until then, you may find lots of different labels on food suggesting it's suitable for people with coeliac disease – so you'll need to check the ingredients list carefully.