Once restricted to a few shelves at your neighborhood grocery store, gluten-free foods have come a long way in the last 10-15 years. But consumers still face challenges in finding gluten-free products they can trust. Packaging that includes certification marks is one way to tell at a glance whether a product meets standards for gluten-free food handling and packaging, but not every manufacturer pursues this type of validation. In many cases, the consumer must conduct their own research to determine whether a gluten-free product is truly safe to eat.

When food products don’t carry certification marks, consumers will often look for products labeled as gluten-free or check ingredient lists to ensure they don’t eat something that could make them sick. However, the process of researching products can be time-consuming due to insufficient information or confusing labeling. For this reason, consumers will often gravitate toward gluten-free brands they already know. Manufacturers can build trust and encourage consumers to try their gluten-free products by adopting transparent labeling and providing detailed information about product ingredients.

Demand for gluten-free foods is growing

In the last decade, demand for gluten-free products has ballooned as more people have adopted a gluten-free diet for medical reasons or as part of a healthy lifestyle. Today, a whopping 23 percent of shoppers are avoiding gluten in their homes. With increased demand, larger manufacturers have joined smaller, niche brands in offering gluten-free products, but they face some unique challenges in meeting the needs of the gluten-free community. Because they work with multiple co-packers and suppliers, larger manufacturers may find it more challenging to monitor food handling and packing processes. Moreover, due to security concerns, they may be reluctant to publish detailed information about their packing plants; this can generate mistrust among gluten-free consumers, who may not understand the rationale behind a perceived lack of transparency.

To resolve these issues, manufacturers should look for suppliers and packers that have a strong track record of working in the gluten-free space for several years. Providing information about your gluten controls can also offer the transparency gluten-free consumers want. For instance, if you have a dedicated facility for packaging gluten-free products, make this clear on your labels and online channels. While a dedicated facility is not required to comply with regulations governing gluten-free foods, it can be a selling point for consumers who want to try new products.

The importance of transparent labeling

Seasonings, cereals, and condiments like soy sauce are a common source of uncertainty for gluten-free consumers. Although many of these products may be gluten-free, they don’t always include a gluten-free claim on the label. This lack of information places the onus on shoppers to research ingredients and may deter them from buying your products.

Foods that contain malt and other natural flavorings derived from gluten-containing sources are another area of concern. Even products that seem like they should be gluten-free, like tea, can contain gluten in the form of barley flavoring. Instill confidence in your products by indicating that you use non-gluten sources for flavorings right on your packaging.

Products that state, “may contain wheat” and variations thereof, like “made on shared equipment,” or “made in a facility that also processes wheat,” are often another big source of confusion for consumers, especially if those products are marketed as gluten-free. In fact, recent research conducted by the Next research firm indicates that 70 percent of gluten-free consumers are negatively influenced by labels that include “may contain …” statements and will often opt not to buy these products. Manufacturers are required by the FDA to clarify that wheat-containing products labeled as gluten-free still meet the FDA standard of containing less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.

Staying on top of regulatory changes is key

Changing regulations can also be a source of confusion for consumers and manufacturers of gluten-free foods alike. In 2013, the FDA released their final rule requiring foods labeled as gluten-free to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten. This rule provided some much-needed guidance to manufacturers and sparked an explosion in the availability and popularity of gluten-free products.

While the FDA rule established a clear standard for gluten-free labeling, it didn’t solve every issue. For example, many products contain extracts, seasonings and other added ingredients derived from barley or rye. Unlike wheat, which is an allergen as well as a gluten source, barley, and rye do not need to be called out in the ingredient list, or in the allergen statement. The proposed Food Labeling Modernization Act (FLMA), reintroduced in Congress in August 2021, would bring additional clarity to gluten-free packaging by requiring manufacturers to identify any added ingredients derived from all gluten sources.

A temporary rule change by the FDA that allows manufacturers to make minor substitutions to ingredients without updating ingredient lists is another source of concern for the gluten-free community. Intended to address supply chain issues associated with COVID-19, the temporary rule change has also generated questions for manufacturers who may need to swap suppliers on short notice while adhering to FDA requirements for gluten-free labeling. If you manufacture gluten-free products, you can secure your supply chain and avoid making mistakes by proactively vetting suppliers and having reliable backups in case you need to make a substitution.

Use labels and online channels to market your gluten-free products

When marketing your gluten-free products, it is a good practice to provide additional information about ingredients and food handling practices on your website and social media. Pursuing certification through a reputable auditor like the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) can be another boon to your marketing efforts. These organizations can also help you stay on top of changing regulatory requirements and learn best practices for preventing cross contamination. If you do pursue certification, place any certification marks prominently on the front of your packaging. People respond to signs and symbols and will gravitate toward brands that include trusted marks.

With the mainstreaming of gluten-free products, manufacturers are looking to get into the gluten-free game but may struggle to capture this market unless they can reassure consumers that their products are trustworthy. Developing strong gluten controls, adopting transparent labeling and pursuing certification are three ways you can earn the confidence of consumers and build a loyal customer base for your gluten-free products.

For more information, visit www.gluten.org and www.gfco.org.