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CCA Sue’s Quick Fact of the Month

A note on “May Contain” labelling.

May Contain

A large food retailer in Canada adds “May contain wheat” warnings to virtually all of its house brand products.  Snack foods imported from some countries regularly list all 12 priority allergens on their ingredient lists. Products with a gluten-free claim also carry “may contain wheat” warnings (and this is encouraged by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency).  Almost all the ingredient labelling regulations in Canada are set by regulation but precautionary labels remain in the “optional” category.  No wonder people are confused about the words “May contain”.

In the last two years, products have appeared in our stores carrying both a “Gluten-free” claim and a “May contain wheat” warning. According to Health Canada, this labelling rule is acceptable in situations where the product meets the criteria for a gluten-free claim (no gluten ingredients, product made specifically to be gluten free, and no gluten contamination at levels above 20 ppm) but may have levels of gluten contamination below 20 ppm. The “May contain” warning is provided as a service to people with a true wheat allergy. There are no maximum safe levels for allergy warnings.
So what should someone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity do with these products? Here are our recommendations:
1. “Gluten-free” claims must be true so they take precedence over any precautionary “May contain wheat” claims. Go ahead and eat the product.
2. If there is no “gluten-free” claim, but there is a “May contain” warning for any gluten grain, do not eat the product.
The fact that “May contain” labels are voluntary triggers fear for some consumers. Product manufacturers are “responsible for the safety of their products, including addressing potential risks associated with the presence of allergens”.  In other words, if the risk is significant and not controlled, they must inform consumers.

Meeting Health Canada: As the voice for people with CD and GS, CCA representatives recently met with Health Canada in June. CCA is also involved in stakeholder consultations related to prescription drugs, natural health products and new beer standards. We will continue to advocate for ways to make labelling more clear for consumers. 

Ask the CCA: July Facebook Question of the Month

Here is the most recent question featured in our month of July newsletter.

Q. Why doesn’t <product x> have a “gluten-free” claim on it? There are no gluten ingredients listed.

A. In Canada, not having gluten ingredients is just one of three criteria for a gluten-free claim.  The other requirements are that the food must meet the criteria of a food for special dietary use and it must not contain gluten from uncontrolled contamination in the ingredients or manufacturing process.

A food for special dietary use is “... a food that has been specially processed or formulated to meet the particular requirements of a person a) in whom a physical or physiological condition exists as a result of a disease, disorder or injury;”. In other words, a gluten-free food must be specifically made for someone with celiac disease. A jar of jam may not contain any gluten ingredients but it cannot be labelled “gluten-free” unless the manufacturer takes specific steps to confirm that there is no gluten.

Because a product must meet all three of these requirements to make a “gluten-free” claim, there are many products on the market that are safe for someone with celiac disease, even though they do not carry a gluten-free claim. Some of these products are essentially unprocessed including fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, dairy, and meat. Others are products where no gluten ingredients are used in most or all of the products in the category including jams and jellies, butter, yogurt and cheese.

There are some products that are at a higher risk for gluten contamination. The CCA recommends that you look for a “gluten-free” claim on those products. They include baked goods, breakfast cereals, flour and nuts. For lower risk products, we recommend that you make your decision based on the ingredient labelling information provided on the package.

-July 24, 2018

Why you shouldn’t just go gluten-free

Written by: Dr Justine Turner, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition and CCA Professional Advisory Council Member

Celiac disease is a disorder of the immune system, where the individual affected does not tolerate gluten, a common part of our Canadian diet, present in wheat, barley and rye. This is the only disease that requires a 100% lifelong gluten-free diet.

It has become increasingly common to ‘try’ a gluten-free diet for many other reasons that are not celiac disease. Some of these reasons are poorly supported by facts. For example, a gluten-free diet is not a good strategy to lose weight as it can actually be high in saturated fat and simple sugars without careful dietary guidance. There are many other common conditions, where gluten is not well tolerated. In fact gluten is hard to digest and can cause many people who do not have celiac disease to have bloating or abdominal pain. However, these individuals might tolerate lesser amounts of gluten and are not at risk for the lifelong complications of celiac disease, like malabsorption and poor bone health. As it’s not easy to be on a gluten-free diet all day every day, and because gluten-free food can be expensive, most people who try the diet don’t actually stick to it 100% forever.

If you have celiac disease to be on the diet forever is critical to staying healthy and so you really want to know the truth. To get the diagnosis right it’s very important that the screening blood test and the diagnostic endoscopy test both be done while you are still eating gluten. If gluten is stopped, it can become very difficult to get the diagnosis right. You need to know for sure if you have a chronic illness and need a strict lifelong gluten-free diet, or can you tolerate ‘some’ gluten now or maybe in the future. If you suspect you have celiac disease ask your doctor for the blood test to be done. Remember, if positive the blood test warns your doctor that you might have celiac disease, but it does not prove you have the disease. It can be wrong. Keep eating gluten till the right test for you is completed, which is usually an endoscopy and biopsy test.

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