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The FDA Just Made Gluten-Free Mainstream

Last week the FDA announced its definition for “gluten-free,” a clear acknowledgment that we need protection from potentially misleading labels. While many of us have come to know and trust brands that are committed to safety and honest labeling, all of us were more or less relying on manufacturers’ varying definitions of “gluten-free”, so this standardization is a win for everyone.

Just in time, too, as big players in the food manufacturing world like General Mills have been introducing more and more products labeled gluten-free. They’ve been working on these for years, as most new product lines take a while to reach store shelves. Similarly, restaurant chains have introduced or ramped up gluten-free options in their lineups. Panera, Jimmy John’s and Dunkin’ Donuts to name just a few. Definitely a step in the right direction as a culture, though the jury’s still out on how safe these options will be, in terms of cross-contamination.

But what implications will this have for the way we eat?

Convenience is hard to overvalue, for sure. We all know what it’s like to just want something reasonable to eat out in the world or at home, especially after hustling around all day with kids or trying to grab something quick at lunchtime so we can get back to work.

But just because something is labeled gluten-free doesn’t mean we should eat it.

Gluten-free garbage is still garbage, right? And highly processed foodthings that contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten (the FDA’s new definition), are still highly processed foodthings. Personally, I keep snacks near me that I trust. The low blood sugar thing is just old and if I never get those jitters or quick temper moments again from a simple empty belly, hallelujah. A life better lived. Give me something tasty, easy and REAL.

Some manufacturers will take advantage of the labeling law to proclaim Gluten-Free! on such questionable items as fruits or vegetables. Or water. We saw similar shenanigans with “A Fat-Free Food” labels on things like Starburst candies back in the 80’s or 90’s, I can’t remember. Okay I choose not to remember. Other companies who place a premium on their relationship with their customers will take a straightforward, common-sense approach to labeling. They will respect their customers and put the responsibility to keep them safe at the top of the list. Buy those products. Support those brands. They’re providing us with good food that we enjoy so we can do embarrassing things like line dancing in flip-flops.

What will the term “gluten-free” do to the mainstream food landscape? Time will tell, but I look to “vegetarian” as a case study. Early on, the term was somewhat loaded, almost political in nature. Nowadays it’s commonplace and turns fewer heads when mentioned. A vegetarian option is offered much of the time, and notably more than the plain salad or naked baked potato of yore. Can gluten-free options at commonplace events like weddings or sales conventions be far behind?

Lastly, once something like gluten-free makes it into the common lexicon, it’s easy for selective amnesia to kick in. A collective exhale, a thank you to the sky and we can now have gluten-free sugarbombs or fried cheese curds. The same way “vegetarian” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy,” foods labeled “gluten-free” don’t necessarily mean they were made by a real human being with all natural ingredients.

“All natural.” Right.