"Gluten free" now has an official definition in the U.S.
The Food and Drug Administration released new rules Friday that set standards for the term's use on food product packaging.
Gluten refers to a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. People with celiac disease, an immune disorder, cannot properly digest gluten and must avoid it for life to prevent severe intestinal damage.
Under the new definition, any foods labeled "gluten free" or related terms such as "no gluten," "free of gluten" and "without gluten" must contain 20 parts per million of gluten or fewer.
Though products don't have to be completely free of gluten, only a very small number of people wouldn't be able to ingest the amount of gluten the new rule would allow, according to the FDA.
"Adherence to a gluten-free diet is the key to treating celiac disease, which can be very disruptive to everyday life," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said. "The FDA's new 'gluten-free' definition will help people with this condition make food choices with confidence and allow them to better manage their health."
Many products on the market already meet the 20 parts per million standard, which was proposed during the George W. Bush administration. The FDA has been working since then to evaluate whether the standard was correct, said Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods.
About 1 in 141 Americans has celiac disease, according to estimates from the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic. Others may fall into the increasingly recognized category of "gluten intolerant," meaning they experience some of the same symptoms - such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and weight loss - without meeting the criteria for celiac.
Gluten-free diets have also gained a certain level of trendiness from celebs like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, who have attributed it to weight loss - however, many nutrition experts advise people not to cut out gluten unless it is medically necessary, to avoid missing out on vitamins and nutrients found in those products.
Americans spent more than $4 billion on gluten-free foods last year, according to the American Celiac Disease Alliance.