Jennifer North is a vegetarian who grew easier to please at restaurants after her daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease and the more difficult hunt to find gluten-free dining options began. “These days, if my soup comes and there’s a little bit of sausage in it, I say ‘that’s OK, I can just pick it out,’” she laughed. As vice president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, North cheered the foundation’s new partnership with the Canadian Gluten-Free Certification Program to bring the certified gluten-free seal to products in the U.S.
Celiac disease, as many of us know by now, is an autoimmune digestive disease that basically makes the body attack the small intestine when gluten is ingested, causing damage that interferes with nutrient absorption. The symptoms may not appear for days or weeks after the gluten is ingested, unlike other food allergies that attack immediately, but the effects can be just as serious.
The certification may go a long way toward helping those with gluten issues make sure they’re eating safely all the time. Currently, the U.S. government doesn’t have any set standards or labeling rules for gluten-free products. Meanwhile, studies including one published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology show that a percentage of people diagnosed with celiac disease who adopt a gluten-free diet still haven’t fully healed after five years, indicating that they may still be taking in gluten without knowing it, she said.
Even minute traces of gluten, a protein found in wheat and related cereal grains including barley and rye, are enough to set off a reaction in some sufferers, North said, yet some products labeled “gluten free” also come with “may contain” statements or warnings that the products were made in factories that also process wheat.
“I like to say you have to have a PhD to understand the gluten-free diet,” North said. “It can be really stressful, it causes a lot of stress for gluten-free families, and the easier we can make it the better. We need manufacturers to understand, and to make it clear in bold letters on the front of the package.”
The Canadian Celiac Association developed the certification process, which includes rigorous third-party audits, in 2011 and the first certified products hit the shelves in Canada last year. “Since the system can break down anywhere in the process from the field on, the project looks at every element in the process,” North said. “How are you sourcing? How are your suppliers sourcing?”
It’s too early for any products bearing the seal to be available in the U.S., but a couple U.S. companies have already started the audit process, she said.
The seal comes as more and more goodies labeled gluten-free have become available, not too many years after it was a struggle for celiac sufferers to even find palatable gluten-free breads. “Most of the food we should be eating is naturally gluten-free, like fruits, vegetables and proteins. … Snacks and sweets, that’s really what the products are about, and now you can get a great brownie, cookie, cake, pretzel, chips of all kinds and even toaster pastries at Wal-Mart and regular grocery stores everywhere.”