WASHINGTON — A label that reads ‘‘gluten free’’ will now mean the same thing for all food, regardless of which kind you buy.
After more than a six-year delay, the Food and Drug Administration has set a new standard for labels that will make shopping easier for consumers on gluten-restricted diets. Until now, the term ‘‘gluten free’’ had not been regulated, and manufacturers made their own decisions about what it means.
Under an FDA rule announced Friday, products labeled gluten free still won’t have to be technically free of wheat, rye and barley, and their derivatives. But they will have to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten.
That amount is generally recognized by the medical community to be low enough so that most people who have celiac disease won’t get sick if they eat it.
People who suffer from celiac disease don’t absorb nutrients well and can get sick from the gluten found in wheat and other cereal grains. Other countries already have similar standards.
The new rule also would ensure that foods with the labels ‘‘no gluten,’’ “free of gluten,’’ and ‘‘without gluten’’ meet the FDA’s definition.
Manufacturers will have a year to comply, though many companies that market gluten-free foods already meet the standard.
Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, said the rule, originally proposed during the George W. Bush administration, was delayed because the agency was evaluating what standard was correct.
Congress directed the FDA to set the standards in 2004 as part of a larger law that required food packaging to list major allergens.
In the decade since, gluten-free foods have become big business. Millions of people are buying the foods because they say they make them feel better, even if they don’t have celiac disease. Americans spent more than $4 billion on gluten-free foods last year, according to the American Celiac Disease Alliance.