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The ins and outs of gluten-free packaging

January 27, 2014
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Celiac disease and gluten allergies are life-altering conditions that affect roughly 3 million Americans, disturbing their well being and forcing them to drastically change their diet. As a result, food manufacturers are learning the importance of gluten-free packaging for their specialty items. For those who have celiac disease or an allergy to gluten, grocery shopping is a serious undertaking that involves reading ingredient lists and nutritional information for nearly every item that makes it into the cart.

Just last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set a new standard for “gluten-free” labels, aiming to make grocery shopping easier for those affected by celiac disease or anyone looking to adopt a gluten-free diet. Here’s a look at the additional requirements and design elements you should keep in mind to make sure your gluten-free products are packaged safely and correctly.

The FDA’s regulations cover foods labeled “without gluten,” “free of gluten,” “no gluten,” and “gluten-free.” Under the new FDA rule, a “gluten-free” label means that the food with that label contains either no gluten at all, or such a trace amount that only a very small number of people would get sick as a result of ingesting the food. Foods that cannot include this label on their packaging are foods with any whole grains or gluten-containing grains, such as spelt wheat. Likewise, foods that include grains that are refined but still contain gluten, like wheat flour, cannot be labeled as gluten free.

Foods that can make the gluten-free claim and be labeled as “gluten-free,” on the other hand, are any foods with gluten-containing grains that have been refined so that gluten is no longer present, as long as the food contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten. An example of this is wheat starch. Foods that use the label also must not contain gluten from cross contact with gluten-containing grains.

As you may expect, goods with no inherent gluten in their ingredients may use the label but are not required to. This may not seem like too big of an issue, but there are implications to consider. Inherently gluten-free foods, like raw carrots or grapefruit juice, for example, are normal purchases for every grocery shopper and not just those looking for gluten-free foods. Introducing a “gluten-free” sticker could deter the regular grocery shopper from a purchase, even though there has been absolutely no change to the product. If the shopper sees the new label, he may think he is getting a product that isn’t as good as the normal one, similar to some of the connotations that go along with “fat free” or “low sodium” labels. If you choose to utilize the gluten-free label, there are design-related solutions that could help with this complication.

As far as design is concerned, consider creating a series of labels that denote certain types of food, which will make gluten-free shoppers’ lives a bit easier without deterring regular shoppers. They could be small and subtle, but making them standard and recognizable across your brand will make them easy to spot for those who need to know about gluten content. Take, for instance, Trader Joe’s dietary lists and guides, which illustrates the labeling conventions used in Trader Joe’s stores. Their list has icons denoting vegan, kosher, vegetarian, quick meal, fat free and low sodium products in addition to their “No Gluten Ingredients Used” label. With knowledge of these labels, shoppers know exactly where to look and what to look for when they need gluten-free food.

Packaging and preparation are two more areas of concern, because keeping gluten-free foods away from other foods or ingredients with gluten is essential to keeping your foods below the threshold of 20 parts per million. Doing so extends from manufacturing all the way to blending, mixing and packaging. When packaging gluten-free food, it’s important to remember that cross contact is a possibility — and it doesn’t take much. Just as restaurants are required to prepare gluten-free options in a separate kitchen, it may be wise to consider a completely different facility for packaging your gluten-free items.

The plight of the gluten-free shopper is one of grocery-shopping inconvenience, but it is rooted in a serious, life-altering condition. The FDA is taking steps to make things easier for gluten-free shoppers. Keeping in mind the labeling, design and packaging tips here, you can do the same.

About the author:

 Chris Bekermeier is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, for PacMoore, headquartered in Hammond, Indiana. PacMoore is one of the leading certified gluten free food manufacturers focused on processing dry ingredients for the food and pharmaceutical industries. Its capabilities include blending, spray drying, re-packaging, sifting, and consumer packaging.

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