Tricia Thompson, MS, RD is a nutrition consultant, author and speaker specializing in celiac disease and the gluten-free diet. She is the author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide and has a MS degree in nutrition from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA degree in English Literature from Middlebury College in Vermont.

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Living Gluten-Free

by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, The Gluten-Free Dietitian

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Have you ever been with friends who are eating gluten-laden delicious-looking food and had them ask, “Can’t you have just one bite?” You may be wondering yourself whether a little bit really will hurt you, especially since hearing that the Food and Drug Administration is considering allowing some gluten in gluten-free food.

So, is it okay to have a little bit of gluten? The answer depends on what you mean by “a little bit.”

The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of developing a rule for the labeling of foods as gluten free. Currently the proposed rule states that food labeled “gluten free” must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This is a teeny tiny amount.

What is meant by parts per million?
Parts per million is a proportion or percentage. It means the same thing as milligrams per kilogram because there are one million milligrams in a kilogram. To help illustrate 20 parts per million, consider the following scenario. You purchase a bag of nuts containing 1,000,000 almonds (use your imagination) but instead of receiving 1,000,000 almonds you actually receive 999,980 almonds and 20 cashews. You could say that your bag of almonds is contaminated with 20 parts per million of cashews.

To put 20 parts per million of gluten into real-life context, consider the following information. Regular white bread has been reported to contain 12,400 milligrams of gluten per 100 grams (124,000 parts per million of gluten). Assuming this is accurate, a one-ounce slice of regular bread would contain 3,515 milligrams of gluten. Compare this to a one-ounce slice of gluten-free bread containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten. The slice of gluten-free bread would contain a little over 1/2 milligram of gluten.

So, if a “little bit” of gluten means an occasional slice of regular pizza, piece of regular cake, or a regular croissant the answer is “No, it is not okay!” It isn’t even okay to have to have “just one bite.” If you could cut the regular bread into 7,030 itsy bitsy pieces, one itsy bitsy piece would contain about the same amount of gluten as the entire slice of gluten-free bread.

That isn’t even a nibble. But it might be a crumb!

Tricia Thompson, M.S., RD is a nutrition consultant, author and speaker specializing in celiac disease and the gluten-free diet. She is the author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide (McGraw-Hill) and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Gluten-Free Eating (Penguin Group). For more information, visit www.glutenfreedietitian.com.

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For a copy of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide click here.

@ 2:04pm ET on November 26, 2008
Hi Trish,

Great reminders to all! I just wanted to note that the trademark you show is from the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) under the Gluten Intolerance Group. This certification is only on foods that have been certified 10 ppm or less. I know you are well aware of this info, but, of course, others reading might not be. Personally, I have problems with foods that are certified at the 20 ppm or less level (but I NEVER have issues at the GFCO, 10 ppm, level. Therefore, I may be abstaining from foods labeled gluten free per the FDA's requirements in the future, and just sticking with whole foods that I know are naturally gluten free.

Shirley Braden

@ 2:12pm ET on April 28, 2009
Please correct me if I'm wrong. According to the ppm for a food, this DOES refer to "a serving" of the product and NOT the whole box??? For instance, 6 donuts in a package - all 6 would NOT be less than 20 ppm - just one would be, if a serving is "one donut." I deal with lots of people who go wild when it comes to eating gf labeled boxed processed foods. When they feel bad, they blame it on the product instead of the "quantity/servings" they consumed in a short amount of time. I do not see the serving sizes referred to and stressed at all when talking about the 20 ppm "rule" on a packaged product. If I am correct in my thinking, people need to be reminded to watch how MUCH they are consuming PER DAY. I personally know I react to way less than 20 ppm PER DAY (probably less than 10 ppm), so I avoid ALL processed/packaged/boxed foods completely. I eat only veggies and some turkey/fish prepared from scratch at home. No, it's not fun, but neither is feeling terrible and doing damage.

@ 4:37pm ET on April 28, 2009

Thanks for your question. Remember parts per million is a proportion--how many parts out of a million are made up of the contaminant (gluten). Using your donut example, if you tested one donut or ground up all six and tested them the results should be the same--less than 20 ppm of gluten. What this does not tell you is how much gluten you are consuming per donut. For this you need to know the weight of the donut. If a product contains 20 ppm of gluten, each 1 ounce serving would contain a little over half a milligram of gluten.

Does that help?


@ 12:54pm ET on November 30, 2010
How did FDA and the GFCO determine that 20ppm or 10 ppm are safe? How did they come up with a threshold?

@ 6:41am ET on December 11, 2010
Sorry for the delay in responding to your question.

The FDA has a Q and A document available on line entitled, "Questions and Answers on the Gluten-Free Labeling Proposed Rule." The following is included in this document:

"Why did FDA include "20 ppm or more gluten" as a criteria in its definition of "gluten-free"?

The level is proposed based on the available analytic methods. Data from peer-reviewed scientific literature demonstrate that current analytic technology can reliably and consistently detect gluten in wheat, rye, and barley at levels of 20 ppm in a variety of food matrices."

For more information, please see http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/FoodAllergensLabeling/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/ucm111487.htm#q8

Hope this helps!


@ 4:31am ET on August 15, 2017
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