04 April 2013 ~ 2 Comments

Gluten Free Living: Understanding Parts-per-Million

People who live gluten free need to understand the idea of parts-per-million. Some examples: One part per million is the equivalent of one inch in sixteen miles, one minute in two years, or one automobile in a line of cars stretching bumper-to-bumper from Cleveland to San Francisco.

The long-awaited definition of gluten free will almost certainly state that less less than 20 parts-per-million toxic gluten is insignificant. That assumption is debateable, of course, but we do need to understand it. Yesterday, I wrote about three organizations that certify foods but judge them by a stricter standard: one organization requires less than  5 parts-per-million. The other two certify food that contains up to 10 ppm gluten.Obviously, the stricter standard reduces the number of products that can be certified gluten free.

Judging food on the basis of parts-per-million has another disadvantage — it assumes that we are eating normal quantities of food. I’ll use a personal example to explain this. I seldom get glutened except when I am attending a gluten free trade show. The vendors provide a never ending supply of the their best products. I try every one of the samples several times. I kid myself into believing that I am doing professional research. However, those pesky parts-per-million add up! Our well-being depends both on what we eat and how much of it we consume.


Most of my articles this week relate to the Food and Drug Administration’s long awaited announcement of America’s official definition of  ‘gluten free’ food. This announcement will almost certainly specify that 20 ppm is the key number for labeling items ‘gluten free’. How do you feel about this. Please take a moment to fill out this one-question survey. You will be able to cast your vote without leaving this site.


2 Responses to “Gluten Free Living: Understanding Parts-per-Million”

  1. Jeanne 4 April 2013 at 1:08 pm Permalink

    Yes…..I agree with you that those ‘negligible’ amounts of gluten add up. As what my doctor has told me is a ‘sensitive celiac’, I need to be very careful. Well-meaning friends will, as happened recently on Easter, offer me a package of some treat bought with me in mind, that’s “GF’. Reading the small print, there will be the admission that it was processed on shared equipment. I have a rule that seems to work for myself that if the item is very tempting I’ll have a small amount—bite of the cookie, for example—-and then that’s it. And no more from that sort of package for a good while. As you say…it adds up. This is my concern, as well, with this 20 parts per million thing. Those little parts would certainly add up. I certainly wouldn’t want to be having my daily breakfast cereal in that category!
    Thanks, Paul!

  2. Sue Newell 11 April 2013 at 12:03 pm Permalink

    One of the reasons 20 ppm was chosen is because if you eat 500g (just over a pound)of food contaminated at 20 ppm, then you will consume 5 milligrams of gluten in a day.

    This is half of the smallest amount of gluten that has been shown to not cause damage in the small intestine for people with celiac disease in a study.

    In practice, most manufactured food labelled gluten free targets no detectable gluten for manufacturing. It is impossible to aim at a tiny number like 20 ppm. The 20 ppm simply provides a margin for error.

    There are a number of problems you might run into problems when you graze at a trade show. One is that you might be consuming several pounds of food, but another reason is that you are consuming more fat, sugar and volume of food than you usually consume. How does the body react to those issues? With digestive problems, of course.

    This happens at every celiac conference I have ever attended. By the end of the day there are a dozen people sure that they have been glutened, but 500 people who have not.

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