Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

What Does It Mean To Be “Gluten Free”?

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By Liesel Kuhr, Business and Finance Manager, NEA Health Information Network

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally defined what it means for food to be labeled “gluten free”.  This new rule is great news for people with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease. Under the new rules, which will become fully effective in a year, consumers can trust that packaged foods sold in the U.S. and labeled “gluten free” meet the safety standards enforced by FDA.  For more information on celiac disease, the new rules, and FDA labeling, visit FDA.gov.

So what’s the difference between a wheat allergy, a gluten intolerance, and celiac disease?  Gluten intolerance and celiac disease should not be confused with a wheat allergy.  A wheat allergy is a food allergy, which can trigger an allergic reaction ranging from mild itching and swelling to potentially fatal anaphylaxis.  Because some people are allergic to wheat, packaged foods regulated by the FDA and sold in the U.S. are required to list wheat on the label when it is an ingredient.  A doctor may prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector to a person with a wheat allergy, but not for gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.  Check out NEA HIN’s Food Allergy Guide for more info on how your school can be prepared to manage food allergies.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye (as well as wheat relatives you may not have heard of, like spelt, triticale, kamut, farro, and einkorn).  Also, though oats do not contain gluten, they are almost always cross-contaminated with gluten, unless otherwise labeled.  For someone with a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, eating gluten causes inflammation in the intestines.  Symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting after eating gluten.  Related symptoms can include headaches, lethargy, attention problems, and muscle problems.  Once gluten goes away, the symptoms do, too.

Celiac disease is a more serious autoimmune disease that causes a person’s immune system to attack his or her own intestines when gluten is eaten.  Unmanaged celiac disease can result in serious long-term complications including malnutrition and intestinal damage.  Celiac, once diagnosed by a doctor, requires a strict gluten free diet.

Clear labeling of gluten free foods is great news for schools, where management of food intolerance is a growing concern.  Just because “wheat” isn’t listed as an ingredient, food may still have gluten in it; products can contain gluten from barley or rye, or because they are processed in plants that also process gluten foods. A gluten reaction can also happen from cross-contamination, so separate utensils, work surfaces, and jars of spreadable condiments like margarine and peanut butter should be used with gluten free foods.  It is important for educators to be aware of student food allergies and intolerances.  Everyone has a role in helping students manage their food-related health needs!