Who decides on the Codex standard?
The Codex standard for glutenA protein that is found in the cereals wheat, barley and rye.
is decided by an international body called the Codex Alimentarius Commission which works to protect the health of consumers.
Codex standards are based on information from scientists, technical experts and government regulators.
What are the recommended levels?
In 1981, the standard for gluten-freeWhen a food has less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten so it is safe for people with coeliac disease to eat.
labelling was set at a level of 200mg gluten per kilogram or 200 parts per million (ppmParts per million. Testing of gluten in food is measured in ppm. This might sometimes be seen as mg/kg.
). This standard was changed in July 2008 to a standard with two levels, which will provide safer limits overall, and allows a clear choice of products for people with coeliac diseaseA condition where a person is unable to eat gluten as it makes their body attack itself.
The Codex standard now has two levels:
Foods containing 20ppm gluten or less
Only foods that contain 20ppm or less can be labelled as 'gluten-free'.
This may apply to specialist substitute gluten-free products like breads, flours and crackers, which may contain Codex wheat starchA specially manufactured kind of wheat starch that has been washed to reduce the level of gluten to a trace level within the Codex standard.
, as well as processed foods which are naturally gluten-free products like soups, baked beans and crisps. The ‘gluten-free’ label may also be used for uncontaminated oat products.
The term ‘gluten-free’ implies no gluten, but in practice a zero level does not exist. It is impossible to eat a zero gluten diet, because even naturally gluten-free cereals such as rice can contain up to 20ppm or 20mg/kg of gluten. Research shows that this tiny amount of gluten is not toxic to people with coeliac disease who can eat unlimited amounts of products with gluten at a level of 20ppm or less.
Foods containing between 21 and 100ppm gluten
Specialist substitute products (such as breads and flour mixes) that contain Codex wheat starch with a gluten level above 21 and up to 100ppm may be labelled as ‘very low gluten’.
The law on gluten-free
The European Commission decided to use the new Codex standard as the basis for a law on labelling of food for people who are gluten intolerant. This law was introduced in January 2009 and, to allow manufacturers the time to to make changes to product ranges and labels, fully came into effect in January 2012.
Read more about the law on gluten-free.
Frequently asked questions
Why has the Codex standard for gluten been changed?
Everyone with coeliac disease is different in their sensitivity to gluten. Most people with coeliac disease can tolerate a low level of gluten without ill effects. However, some people are more sensitive and can only safely eat foods which contain 20ppm or less of gluten.
The standard which came into effect in January 2012 provides safer limits overall and also helps you to make clearer choices about which foods you eat. The term 'gluten-free' will only be used on foods which contain 20ppm or less of gluten, which will be safe for everyone.
What does 'gluten-free' really mean?
The term 'gluten-free' implies no gluten, but in practice it is not possible to test for a zero level of gluten. Research has shown that people with coeliac disease are able to eat a very small amount of gluten safely. As a result low levels of gluten are allowed in products that are labelled gluten-free.
What is Codex wheat starch?
This is a specially manufactured wheat starch which has a level of gluten within the Codex standard. The Codex wheat starch ingredient was first introduced as a basis for substitute products like flour and bread to improve the quality and texture of the products. It must always appear in an ingredients list if it has been used.
Is the Codex standard for gluten covered by the law?
The European Commission decided to use the new Codex standard as the basis for a law on labelling of food for people who are gluten intolerant. Read more about the new law on gluten-free.