Gluten Free Basics: PPM and Cross Contamination

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We covered some of the basics of a gluten free diet, such as many popular foods that gluten is found in and some places we might find “hidden gluten”. We also learned the main reasons why most people turn to the gluten free diet. In Section 3, we are going to cover a couple important concepts for gluten free eaters: PPM and cross contamination.

Parts Per Million (PPM) – What It Is and Why You Should Care About It

If you are new to the gluten-free lifestyle, you have probably never heard of PPM. Basically, the quantity of gluten in a particular product can be expressed scientifically as a certain number of parts of gluten contained in each million parts of the product – that is, parts per million (PPM), of gluten. More simply, it is the percent of gluten in the product. Let’s say a product has gluten levels of 200 PPM – that would mean the product is 0.02% gluten. This product is NOT gluten-free.

The US Food and Drug Administration does not currently have strict testing and reporting for gluten-free products. Canada and countries in the European Union consider under 20 PPM to be gluten-free. Most companies in America consider under 20 PPM to be gluten-free though, and many use that number as their cut-off point. The FDA has proposed that products that test under 20 PPM are gluten free and the manufacturer place the “gluten free” label on it after the testing, but those are just recommendations right now until the regulations are finalized. The “gluten free” label in the United States is only as trustworthy as the manufacturer placing it on there.

When you are shopping for groceries (and more on this in Section 5), the first thing you should look for on a product is a “gluten free” label on it. I have yet to find a company that uses a gluten free label on products that are not gluten free, so I will trust the “gluten free” label until I have a reason not to. I find it hard to believe that any company would jeopardize their reputation by doing something like that, but you never know.

Some products will have a gluten free certification on the label. The Celiac Sprue Association awards it’s Seal of Approval to products that contain less than 5 ppm, while the Gluten Free Certification Organization certifies products that come in under 10 ppm.

So Any Product Under 20 PPM is Fine to Consume?

This is where things get tricky, unfortunately! Many celiacs can and will react to products even though they are under the 20 PPM threshold.

Recently, there have been some new beer products on the shelves that use a special enzyme during the brewing process that removes the gluten. The gluten levels now test below 20 PPM, but there were a number of gluten-free people on message boards warning others that they had reactions after drinking the beers. These beers have many of the same ingredients as regular beers – barley, for one – so they don’t actually list gluten-free on the packaging, but rather, “gluten removed”. Many gluten intolerant individuals can probably safely consume these new beers, but celiacs need to practice caution when considering anything that is “gluten removed”.

If you are going gluten free for non-health related reasons or you aren’t particularly sensitive to gluten, you should have no problems with anything under the 20 PPM mark.

Cross Contamination

If you are just starting a gluten free diet and have a plate of food with no gluten-containing ingredients in any of the items, you might think you are 100% in the clear and can just gobble it down with no negative consequences. I mean, what else is there to worry about? Cross contamination, that’s what!

Let’s say that you are at a friend’s house and they made an amazing gluten free pizza with two slices of gluten free bread and butter to put on the bread. While this is very thoughtful of them, if you are a celiac, this isn’t enough for you. How might cross contamination be coming in to play in this scenario? For starters, the gluten free pizza was likely prepared in the same area where they prepare everything else they eat, which means it likely came in contact with flour or other gluten-containing foods. It was also likely cooked on a pizza pan that has traces of gluten from other regular pizzas, which were then transferred onto your gluten-free pizza during the cooking. The gluten free bread was probably toasted in the same toaster as regular bread; that toaster probably has thousands upon thousands of little breadcrumbs just chillin’ in there. And the butter? If the family ever stuck a knife into the butter, onto a piece of bread, and then back in the butter, guess what? It, too, has gluten in it.

Any area where gluten has previously been is a “code red” threat to contaminating gluten free food.

Most people remember the Domino’s gluten-free pizza debacle: they released a “gluten-free” pizza but prepared it with all the other equipment and utensils and cooked it in the same oven as the other pizzas, therefore making it not actually gluten-free. While some gluten intolerant individuals might be able to tolerate this, celiacs most certainly cannot. The amount of cross-contamination occurring in a pizza place without dedicated equipment is through the roof.

You need to be thinking about cross contamination every time you are eating at some place outside of your friendly home. I will be covering all the basics of eating out in a later chapter, but cross contamination is a serious problem and it needs to be treated as such.

But, what if I am not a celiac?

If you are not a celiac, cross contamination might not be an issue for you, but you still need to be careful. Some people who are gluten intolerant are super sensitive and will still react if a couple breadcrumbs find their way in the food, while other people might only have a reaction if they eat a bowl of pasta. What I am saying is everyone is different, and only you know your body and how it reacts. I would just recommend that everyone be as cautious as celiacs have to be when eating out, but I know that isn’t likely to happen.

If you are gluten free to lose weight or another personal reason, cross contamination isn’t really an issue for you, but still be diligent in always sticking to your gluten free diet.

Move to Section 4: Going Completely Gluten Free