When 'free' means 'well ... nearly'

When 'free' means 'well ... nearly'

A decade ago it was hard to find gluten-free products in supermarkets.

Today, buying gluten-free foods is one of the fastest-growing food trends, and most supermarkets have a large range of gluten-free products.

According to a recent study, nearly four times as many people have coeliac disease, a chronic digestion disorder, as did in the 1950s. And as more people are diagnosed with coeliac disease, or have trouble digesting gluten, as many as a third of consumers are trying to cut back on gluten in their diet.

But across the Tasman, and around the world, a debate is growing about "gluten-free" foods, as food manufacturers seek to change food labelling laws to permit a small amount of gluten in "gluten-free" foods.

This debate will affect New Zealanders, because our food labelling standards are set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), a Canberra-based organisation we joined many years ago. So any change to the FSANZ "gluten-free" standard will affect us too.

No detectable traces of gluten are now permitted in foods that claim to be "gluten-free".

But the Australian Food and Grocery Council has applied to FSANZ to relax this standard, and allow up to 20 milligrams of gluten in "gluten-free" foods.

European countries already allow "gluten-free" products to contain 20 milligrams of gluten, and the council says we need to bring our standard into line with theirs, and that of the international standard-setting organisation, Codex, which has decided that 20 milligrams of gluten is allowable in food sold as "gluten-free".

If our standard is relaxed, the council claims, it will cut down on manufacturing costs (including gluten testing costs) and make it easier for manufacturers to obtain products from overseas to meet the growing market for gluten-free foods.

It would also provide a greater range of gluten-free choices for consumers and make gluten-free foods less expensive. (Gluten-free foods from Europe and North America are not now permitted into Australia and New Zealand because of our more stringent standard).

Those pushing to relax the standard claim scientific evidence shows traces of gluten below 20 milligrams are not harmful to people with coeliac disease. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Coeliac Societies of Australia and New Zealand agree with this, and are supporting the proposed change (as is the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council). They say there are no health problems for people with coeliac disease who consume this small amount of gluten in food.

But others are not so sure, and opposition to the proposal is growing from some dieticians, consumer groups and the local food industry. The Food Intolerance Network, for example, has started a petition opposing the proposal. It says that people with coeliac disease can react to even the tiniest amount of gluten and that it would be dangerous as well as misleading to allow products with 20ppm of gluten in them to be labelled as "gluten-free". The network also claims some of its members react to foods produced under the more lenient European standard.

Some dieticians who specialise in treating people with coeliac disease share their concerns. They say many people with coeliac disease cannot digest any gluten at all, and that a diet that is completely free from gluten is the only current treatment for them.

Many coeliacs would experience painful and debilitating symptoms and other adverse reactions if they were to inadvertently consume higher amounts of gluten in supposedly "gluten-free" foods, they claim.

A small group of Australasian businesses that specialise in producing gluten-free food also oppose the proposal. They predict that if the standard is relaxed, the markets will be flooded with cheap imports that will damage a successful local industry.

Others say the issue is simply about consumer honesty, and that the proposed change would be plainly misleading to consumers.

The New Zealand and Australian commerce commissions now require foods labelled as "-free" - sugar-free, fat-free, salt-free, gluten-free - to be genuinely free of the product claimed.

So under their strict definition, even if FSANZ changed the food standard, food with detectable amounts of gluten in it would not be able to be labelled as "gluten-free".

Some worry, too, that if the gluten-free standard is diluted, there would be pressure to dilute other food standards, and we could end up with sugar-free foods that contain sugar; salt-free foods that contain salt, as well as gluten-free foods that contain gluten.

And so the debate rages on. FSANZ says it will consult widely with consumer and health groups, as well as the food industry, about the proposal.

It's a tricky issue, because of the serious health issues involved. But given FSANZ's long history of siding with the food industry, I predict it will support the Food and Grocery Council's application to relax the standard.

Then it will be up to our Commerce Commission to decide whether it, too, will bend its rules and allow small amounts of gluten in "gluten-free" foods.he


Sue Kedgley