Many Canadians, including those who suffer from Celiac Disease, are unable to consume gluten due to the damage it causes to the inner lining of their small intestine. Other individuals don’t eat gluten, as Jimmy Kimmel once quipped on his late night talk show, “because someone in their yoga class told them not to.” Regardless of the reason a person chooses to avoid gluten (which is a mixture of two proteins found in wheat and related grains), Health Canada has recently announced changes that will allow more access to “gluten-free” choices in the Canadian marketplace.

At the end of May, the Minister of Health indicated that Health Canada will now allow “gluten-free” claims on specifically produced oats with trace amounts of gluten. Previously, these types of claims were not permitted for oats or oat-containing foods, as normal agricultural practices can result in the unintended presence of small amounts of gluten from other grains. Current scientific evidence, however, shows that it is safe for the majority of people with Celiac Disease to eat specially produced oats, so long as they do not contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten from wheat, rye, barley or their hybridized strains.

Foods bearing “gluten-free” claims are regulated under the Food and Drug Regulations (“FDR”), and are considered “foods for special dietary use”. This means that the food has been specially processed or formulated to meet the particular requirements of a person, including people who have a physical or physiological condition as a result of a disorder, injury, or disease (such as Celiac Disease, for example). As the definition of gluten under the FDR includes gluten protein and modified gluten protein from the grain of oat, foods containing oats are required to disclose gluten as an allergen and are prohibited from making “gluten-free” claims. 

In order to allow more choice for gluten-avoiding consumers, including the 2.5 million Canadians who require gluten-free products for health reasons, Health Canada registered a Marketing Authorization on May 19, 2015, which now permits the use of “gluten-free” claims for gluten-free oats and foods that contain them as ingredients. In order to make use of this specially-authorized exemption from the FDR, the food must meet the following criteria:

  1. it must not contain oats other than specially produced “gluten-free oats”;
  2. the finished product cannot contain more than 20 ppm of gluten from wheat, rye, barely or their hybridized strains;
  3. the food cannot contain any intentionally added gluten from those sources; and
  4. the “gluten-free oats” must be clearly identified in all cases where “oats” are referenced, including the list of ingredients.

As a result of this change, Canadians can expect to see more foods identified as “gluten-free” on the shelves of their local grocery store. The ability to market certain oat-containing products as gluten-free will broaden the range and variety of gluten-free food choices, and Health Canada expects it will provide increased diet-related health benefits for the majority of individuals with Celiac Disease. This news is also very positive for the Canadian oat growers and food processors alike who would like access to revenue from the 10 million Canadians looking for gluten-free products in the marketplace. Sadly, for those misguided people who believe that avoiding bread and donuts makes them gluten-free: unfortunately their ability to accurately explain what gluten is exactly (or properly enumerate the foods in which it’s found) just got a whole lot more dubious.