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 and ensure fair trade practices in the food trade.
Codex standards are based on information from scientists, technical experts and government regulators who provide guidelines and codes of practice on specific topics. Read more about Codex Alimentarius.
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/kg 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 dual standard, 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 categories:
Foods containing 20ppm or less gluten
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 starch, as well as naturally gluten-free mainstream products like soups, baked beans and crisps. The ‘gluten-free’ label may also be used for pure, 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 between 20 and 100ppm may be labelled as ‘very low gluten’. We have not seen any products using this term in the UK.
the new law on gluten-free
The European Commission has decided to use the Codex standard as the basis for a law on the labelling of food for people who are gluten intolerant. The law came into full effect in January 2012.
Codex standard Q & A
How will the new Codex standard affect you when reviewing your patients?
Everyone with coeliac disease is different in terms of 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 with 20ppm of gluten or less.
The dual standard gives clear guidance on the safe levels of gluten for people with coeliac disease. The term 'gluten-free' will only be used on products with 20ppm or less which will be safe for people with greater sensitivity to gluten.
With this new standard the gluten-free diet can be adapted to each individual’s needs and levels of sensitivity.
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 tolerate very low levels 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 staple gluten-free 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 legislation?
Yes, the European Commission have used 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.
Commission Directive (EC) No 41/2009 of 20 January 2009. Official Journal of the European Union. 21.1.2009