Life Eat & Drink ‘Gluten-free’ foods not what they seem: study
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‘Gluten-free’ foods not what they seem: study

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'Gluten free' bread was among the products tested. Photo: Getty
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A new Australian study has revealed that 14 per cent of so-called ‘gluten free’ products imported into Australia do not comply with local standards.

The research, from Professor Geoffrey Forbes of The University of Western Australia and Kenneth Dods of chamical analyst, ChemCentre, was published in the Medical Journal of Australia this week. 

Food regulations in Australia require items labelled “gluten free” to contain no traceable levels of gluten at all, while international regulations are generally more lax.

Professor Forbes told The New Daily it was difficult to discern if the low levels of gluten detected would actually harm sufferers of coeliac disease.

“But if there are laws out there, they need to be complied with,” he said, claiming his research was being ignored by the local health department.

bread aisle
Sales of gluten free products have shot up thanks to a dietary fad. Photo: Getty

“They would act if these were higher levels,” he said.

Coeliac is an immune disease caused by the consumption of foods containing gluten, such as wheat, rye, barley and oats.

Reports on the number of coeliac sufferers in Australia vary between 1 in 70 and 1 in 100, and sufferers can experience abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting and fatigue.

Coeliac Australia President Michael Bell told The New Daily any levels of gluten contamination in products sold in Australia was of “great concern to people” with the disease.

He said Coeliac Australia backed the current requirement for nil detectable gluten, until a “safe level of consumption” was discovered.

The gluten-free revolution

Coeliac is the only disease for which a restricted diet is the only treatment.

Despite its prevalence – and improved tests for diagnosis – Coeliac Australia estimates 80 per cent of Australians with the disease go undiagnosed, and there is no cure for those who are.

The hospitality industry has been accused of becoming cynical about coeliacs. Photo: Getty
The hospitality industry has been accused of cynicism about coeliacs. Photo: Getty

Researchers tested 169 imported “gluten free” products – including crackers, cereal, bread, sauces, pasta and snacks – finding gluten was present in 24 items.

Professor Forbes declined to reveal brand names, saying it was a matter that should be dealt with by health authorities.

However, the highest level detected was 1.1 part per million – an amount Professor Forbes said was unlikely to harm the majority of coeliac sufferers.

Australian regulations requiring gluten free foods to contain no traceable gluten were introduced two decades ago, when laboratories were only capable of detecting much higher levels of gluten.

Yet in 2016, more sophisticated testing means that “no traceable levels of gluten” has gone from 30ppm right down to 0.5ppm.

Even Weet-Bix has got in on the gluten free action.
Even Weet-Bix has got in on the gluten free action.

For Professor Forbes, his concern is the reluctance of health departments to act on the allegations raised by his study.

“As far as I know, everything I’ve told them has been ignored and swept under the rug,” he said.

Loosen ‘unrealistic’ regulations

The researchers argued Australian standards for what makes a product “gluten free” should be raised from no detectable trace to one part per million (ppm).

For a person who eats 500 grams of food per day, 1ppm would equate to 1/5000 of a slice of bread.

Professor Forbes said Coeliac Australia had been supportive of a proposed move to the North American and European model, which allows for up to 20ppm, but had changed their tune recently.

“The bottom line is that it is very difficult for processed foods to have no gluten in them at all,” he said.

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