Gluten-free, but don’t tell anybody

By Eric Crampton 22/08/2014

While most of the anti-gluten seems badly overhyped, there are some people for whom gluten poses substantial dietary risk. They need to know if a product has gluten in it. And producers of gluten-free products are generally pretty happy to let potential customers know about it.

Except when the government makes it illegal to tell customers about it.
When I read this, I’m less convinced that New Zealand is outside of the asylum. Here’s Scott Anderson on labelling problems at Kereru Brewing.

My friend is gluten-intolerant, and the discomfort the gluten in wheat and barley bring is one of the reasons beer doesn’t feature in her preferred drinks. But she’d heard of the Auro. “I’ve heard it’s the best gluten-free beer around!” she said.
“That’s great to hear,” replied Chris, “you should get some while you can. Because this batch will be the last. Won’t be allowed to sell it soon. Or at least call it ‘gluten-free’.”
Chris explained that the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has recently released new guidance for what can and can’t be used to promote or label beverages containing more 1.15% alcohol by volume, and “gluten-free” is now prohibited.
Later, I checked out MPI’s Guidance for Alcoholic Beverage Claims and Statements, published 6 May 2014, and confirmed that from 18 January 2016:
“…nutrition content claims or health claims must not be made for food containing more than 1.15% Alcohol By Volume (ABV). The exception to this is a nutrition content claim about energy content or carbohydrate content.”
Meaning, from that date, no product labelled or described by the retailer / brewer with such claims can be sold in New Zealand.
A “nutrition content claim” is defined by MPI as:
“…a claim that is made about the presence or absence of a biologically active substance, dietary fibre, energy, minerals, potassium, protein, carbohydrate, fat, salt, sodium or vitamins; glycaemic index or glycaemic load that does not refer to the presence of alcohol and is not a health claim. “Gluten free” is captured under the definition of nutrition content claim.”
It’s interesting to see “gluten free” pulled out for emphasis there by MPI there and in other passages of the Guidance; clearly this has been published to directly inform brewers that they can’t put such a statement on their beers. Because if you’re going to be really pedantic about the above statement, perhaps mentioning a particular strain of yeast might be mentioning the presence of a “biologically active substance”.

And to think, just a couple days ago, I was making fun of America for its beer label dictator.

These regs don’t come in until 2016 so there should still be time to fix this. It sounds like gluten is in the unhappy spot of being something not quite serious-enough to be an allergen but probably more important than a “health claim”. Were it an allergen, then everybody would be required to put on labels saying “May contain gluten”. If it’s not an allergen, then nobody’s allowed to advertise “gluten-free”, because it’s bad to associate healthiness with beer, even if moderate drinking is healthy.

If that doesn’t work, perhaps SOBA could produce a list of Gluten Free beers, and whatever organisation exists for the no-gluten people could link to it.

0 Responses to “Gluten-free, but don’t tell anybody”

  • Yes, it indeed sounds like bureaucracy gone mad, but the report I heard indicated that yes, MPI will review the current situation and make changes deemed valid. In fact, without hearing any response in the media from MPI I would have said that they would undoubtedly review the situation. The Food Act is there to protect us, to ensure our food is safe and that labelling claims are valid and meaningful. In the whole scheme of things MPI have done an amazing job in a mind-bogglingly complex environment.

    • It does seem curious that they specifically labelled “including gluten-free” as a banned health claim. I hope they remove that line.

  • There is some sensitivity over companies making label claims that are specious, eg labelling as gluten free something that is patently gluten free eg wine, vodka. Remember the “no added sugar” days, of fruit juices that undoubtedly contained sugar (fructose from fruit) taking advantage of uninformed people who didn’t understand, and implying that the dreaded “pure white and deadly” wasn’t there. I believe the initial thinking was driven by those sorts of situations …and yes, there is the part of the act where ‘unhealthy’ foods cannot make ‘health’ claims, the (Standard 1.2.7) Health Claims legislation.

    • I still love the “Asbestos Free” food sticker suggested by XKCD a while back. On beer, though, gluten-free seems an obvious one to allow. Gluten is pervasive in beer, what with the being derived from barley and wheat, and avoiding it is real important for those who are sensitive.