What I Gluten? Confusion About Gluten Free Foods

Consumers are not well informed around the topic of gluten, according to a new survey from NSF International, a global public health and safety organization. The survey found that despite having heard of gluten, most Americans cannot correctly define it or identify products that could contain the protein.

The survey of 1,012 Americans found that although 90 percent have heard of gluten, only 35 percent correctly identify it as a protein found in wheat and related grains, such as barley and rye. Common misconceptions among those who have heard of gluten are that wheat-free products are also gluten-free (26 percent) and gluten is wheat (15 percent).

The confusion becomes more apparent when consumers who have heard of gluten are asked to identify products that contain gluten. Respondents incorrectly identified rice (47 percent) and potatoes (34 percent) as containing gluten. Conversely, processed foods that often contain gluten, such as beer and salad dressings were not identified by 41 percent and 58 percent of Americans, respectively.

“These survey results indicate consumers concerned about gluten in their diet may unknowingly be eating gluten, even when they think they are avoiding it. It suggests a need for education and a clearer way to identify gluten-free food and ingredients for Americans that desire a gluten-free diet,” said Jaclyn Bowen, Director of NSF International’s Consumer Values Verified Program, which offers a Gluten-Free verification seal.

According to the survey, of those who said they avoid gluten, nearly one-fifth (19 percent) say they avoid it because they have a have a gluten allergy or sensitivity that causes stomach pain, such as bloating, vomiting or intestinal issues. Also, nine percent self-report having Celiac disease and eight percent say they have a gluten allergy or sensitivity that causes skin issues, such as rashes or acne.

Consumers are unclear about gluten in processed goods. About half (48 percent) of consumers do not realize gluten can be found in either spices/flavorings or dietary supplements.

Consumers are wary of unsubstantiated gluten-free labeling claims. Only a little more than half of Americans believe products that use the words ‘gluten-free’ on the label have been verified to be free from all gluten (54 percent).

Consumers are adopting a gluten-free lifestyle for a variety of reasons. In addition to health concerns, some people are adopting a gluten-free lifestyle because it makes them feel healthier (12 percent) and to lose weight (seven percent)

Bowen added that gluten-free grains like oats, buckwheat and teff might be processed in the same plant and sometimes the same machine as products containing gluten, causing cross-contamination. The best line of defense is to look for a gluten-free verification which is represented as a seal or mark on the package, such as NSF International’s Gluten-Free seal.”

For information on NSF International’s gluten-free mark, visit the NSF International website.