Around one in 40 manufactured food products labelled as ‘gluten-free’ may actually contain traces of gluten, according to a new Australian study investigating whether or not the gluten-free food people use to cook meals at home are as pure as they claim to be.
Tests conducted in the study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia today, revealed that seven out of 256 popular gluten-free foods, manufactured in Australia, did not comply with the national standard of ‘no detectable gluten’.
The gluten-free foods which were found to contain traces of gluten were two types of crackers, two types of muesli bars, a noodle rice snack and dry pasta.
The products were bought from 16 large retail supermarkets, 10 discount or independent supermarkets, and one specialty health food supermarket.
“The findings show this is not an isolated event and that there’s some sort of systemic issue going on that might be causing [gluten] to be in some gluten-free foods.”
The study found that two of the gluten contaminated samples came from the same manufacturer and contained the same two ingredients. Three of the seven items were produced in dedicated gluten-free factories.
One of the products found to contain gluten has already been recalled by the manufacturer.
“The findings show this is not an isolated event and that there’s some sort of systemic issue going on that might be causing [gluten] to be in some gluten-free foods,” says study co-author, Dr Jason Tye-Din, head of coeliac research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and gastroenterology consultant at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
“We don’t know what those issues are [that are causing the contamination] but we do know that several of the companies were dedicated gluten-free food companies. That means they are likely to be very stringent and do not have gluten in their factories. So it may mean that, in many cases, gluten has being brought into the factory through some externally sourced ingredients.
“If companies get [an ingredient] in and they are told it’s gluten-free and it’s an overseas supplier, then maybe it was tested in an overseas lab. I believe the onus should be on the companies that offer gluten-free products to test all of the ingredients to check if there is a contamination.”
How were the products tested?
The research is the first of its kind to look at the possible gluten contamination of gluten-free food products manufactured in Australia.
“What we did first was a list of the top 300 foods purchased in Australia that are gluten-free,” says Dr Tye-Din.
“We were able to get our hands on 256 of those foods. We then sent all of the products off for independent testing for gluten by an external lab.
“If the test came back positive, we retested the product again to confirm the result. Then we bought another batch of that same food and retested the new batch.
“The finding was that the vast majority of the 256 foods were adequately gluten-free with no detectable gluten: that is a good result. But we did detect that seven of the foods tested had gluten in them, albeit very small amounts.”
"I believe the onus should be on the companies that offer gluten-free products to test all of the ingredients to check if there is a contamination.”
Dr Tye-Din tells SBS six of the seven products containing gluten had less than half a milligram of gluten per serving of food.
“That’s quite a low level of gluten. But the pasta containing gluten contained about 3.1 milligrams of gluten.
“We say around 50 milligrams of gluten [per serving of food] is hazardous to people with coeliac disease. So if people were having multiple serves of [this ‘gluten-free food’ with small traces of gluten in it], then theoretically some sensitive people may have issues with it. But I think the bigger take-home message is that clearly these foods are not keeping with the national standard.”
“Coeliac Australia is taking the matter seriously."
What does the study mean for people with coeliac disease?
President of Coeliac Australia, Michael Bell, says experiencing adverse symptoms or adverse medical effects of consuming these products is highly unlikely at the levels detected. However, he states, “Coeliac Australia is taking the matter seriously”.
Bell explains that people with coeliac disease should maintain their trust in the gluten-free items they purchase. “But, as almost three percent of the samples tested did have some detectable gluten, even if it was at very low levels, we feel this is an important issue.
“[We will] consider this important information and see how it can be used to assist manufacturers to have the right processes in place to ensure their products are truly gluten-free and meet Australian standards.”
Coeliac Australia advises all people with coeliac disease to have regular medical check-ups as they do have a serious autoimmune condition and medical assessment is important to determine that their gluten-free diet is going well and no complications are developing.
“If person with coeliac disease has ongoing health issues, Coeliac Australia recommends review by a medical practitioner to determine the cause.”