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You’re standing in a grocery store aisle, holding two almost identical loaves of bread.

One says it’s gluten free. The other says it’s certified gluten free.

Hmm, you think…

Are one of the companies trying to trick you somehow? Is one loaf more gluten free than the other? Who regulates this stuff, anyway? And most importantly, which one should you buy?!

Luckily for those who avoid gluten, there are rules that regulate when a food can be labeled as gluten free, so you don’t have to worry about companies trying to pull a fast one on you. If a food label claims a product is “gluten free,” then according to the FDA, it can’t contain more than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. That’s a seriously tiny amount of gluten that even the Celiac Disease Foundation has determined to be safe for most people with Celiac disease.

But some food manufacturers want to go even further to ensure food safety for those with gluten sensitivity– and that’s where the gluten free certification comes into play.

Gluten Free Certification Programs

There are actually 3 different agencies that certify foods as gluten-free, and each one has their own standards that food companies have to abide by, in order to get certified:

  • Beyond Celiac in the US, and the Canadian Celiac Association, endorse the Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP), which uses the same limits as the FDA, testing products for gluten levels under 20 ppm
  • The Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten Free Certification Organization (GFCO) requires products to contain less than 10 ppm of gluten in order to achieve certification
  • The Celiac Support Association (CSA) has the most stringent requirements, only certifying foods containing less than 5 ppm of gluten, and not admitting any products containing oats – even gluten free oats

But the certification requirements don’t stop there. While the FDA does spot checks every so often, for the most part, it doesn’t regularly test products claiming to be gluten free – their regulation states that the food company itself is responsible for that testing

This is why certification can mean major peace of mind for us gluten free consumers – food companies willingly submit to 3rd party testing to prove that their products are truly, consistently, reliably gluten free.

  • With the GFCO, for example, re-certification must take place every year, and it includes a review of product ingredients, testing, and a plant inspection
  • The CSA also inspects facilities, tests products, and even checks packaging, to make sure it doesn’t include any gluten-containing components
  • The GFCP conducts an in-depth certification audit before granting certification, as well, and requires annual audits each year to remain certified

So why doesn’t every company get its gluten free foods certified? Well, it is an expensive process. Companies have to foot the bill for all those inspections and tests each year, along with paying for the actual certification – so if being gluten free isn’t the main selling point for an item, it may not be worth it financially to get certified.

But for many food manufacturers, it’s worth it to enable their customers to buy their products with confidence.

So, which loaf of bread should you buy? It’s really up to you. They may both have the exact same amount of gluten, but one comes with the extra reassurance that it’s regularly tested. Depending on the reason you’ve adopted a gluten free lifestyle, you may need that additional safeguard, or not. But either way, it’s helpful to know what those labels mean, so that you can make informed decisions at the grocery store.

If you’d like more information on the FDA’s regulation of gluten-free foods, check out my blog post  What That Gluten-Free Label Really Means, According to the FDA.