Foods With Gluten-Free Label Still May Contain Some Gluten

What does it mean when you look at a label stating a food is gluten-free? Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean the food has absolutely no gluten in it. In fact, many foods sporting a “gluten-free” label contain some gluten, and there’s currently no U.S. government regulation or enforcement of gluten-free labeling.

Gluten free pastry on the table, close-up shot.
Photoboyko / Getty Images

So What Is Gluten-Free, Anyway?

In August 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized regulations that would define the term “gluten-free” so that food product manufacturers could use the term when their products contained less than 20 parts per million of gluten, or ppm.

The FDA chose 20 parts per million of gluten as the standard based on research showing that many celiacs, but not all, could consume foods with less than 20 ppm of gluten as part of a standard diet without having major symptoms or incurring the intestinal damage known as villous atrophy.

The agency also noted that testing can reliably detect gluten in food products at concentrations of 20 parts per million.

Gluten-Free Food Labeling Is Voluntary

Manufacturers are not required to place a gluten-free label on a food product, even if it met the FDA’s “gluten-free” standards. Therefore, companies that provide gluten-free labeling on products are doing so to court business from people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

In addition, some manufacturers, especially specialty gluten-free product makers, adhere to stricter standards as part of a gluten-free certification program.

Australia, New Zealand Offer Strictest Gluten-Free Labeling Standards

Gluten-free labeling standards differ from country to country.

While many countries follow the standards in the Codex Alimentarius, which use the same 20 ppm cutoff used on the U.S. gluten-free label label, Australia and New Zealand have a particularly strict gluten-free standard. To qualify for gluten-free labeling, a food must have no detectable gluten in it.

Gluten Still Possible in Foods With Gluten-Free Label

Despite the U.S. gluten-free labeling standards, plus efforts from specialty manufacturers to eliminate more gluten from their products, it’s still quite possible to get glutened from products marked gluten-free, especially if their levels of gluten hover right around that 20 ppm standard.

Current testing technology can detect gluten down to about 3 ppm, and some specialty manufacturers produce products with less than 5 ppm of gluten in them. However, if you’re sensitive to lower levels of gluten, you may react to products tested to have less than 5 ppm of gluten in them.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Food and Drug Administration. ‘Gluten-free’ means what it says.

  2. Codex Alimentarius. Standard for foods for special dietary use for persons intolerant to gluten.

  3. Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. Food Standards Code. Schedule 4: nutrition, health and related claims.

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.