NSF Gluten-Free Certification Program

Living with Celiac Disease can cause trust issues when it comes to food. Even though the FDA has finally defined what gluten-free means, it may not always mean that producers (or consumers) understand. Gluten can show up both in ingredient sourcing and in food production. Case in point - A study by Anne Lee and Tricia Thompson showed some naturally gluten-free grains containing more than 20 PPM due to processing practices. This is why third-party certification practices help to assure the consumer the products they are purchasing are actually gluten-free.

Michigan company ensures trust in gluten-free standards 

NSF International, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan is one such organization that does third party certification. Originally known as the National Sanitation Foundation, they have been ensuring the safety of consumers since 1944. In the 50's they created "standards for the sanitation of soda fountain and luncheonette equipment." Today they are an international company that tests products for many safety factors.

I recently had the chance to tour the labs at the Ann Arbor headquarters, which contains 150,000 square feet of laboratory space. I didn't so much tour the labs, as I toured the hallways. They take the integrity of their work and the privacy of the companies that they test very seriously. A few times they covered up work stations as we walked past. It's good to know that a certifying organization takes their work protocols so seriously.

In 2004, NSF acquired QAI, one of the largest certifying organizations of organic foods and products. QAI has a long history of certification standards, having been around since 1989. It is off these organic testing protocols that the framework of their gluten certification standards were written. NSF and QAI had gluten-free standards of under 20 ppm per million long before the FDA did.

There are 5 steps to getting a product certified gluten-free through NSF. 

1) Application - Companies must submit an application, necessary documents & a signed application.

2) Product Review - NSF reviews the product, which includes product labeling, raw ingredients and the company's allergen procedures and protocols.

3) Onsite Inspection - A NSF team member travels to the manufacturing plant and visually inspects the premises to make sure all things disclosed in the paperwork are accurate.

4) Sample Testing - NSF takes a random product sample while on premises. This is sent back to the lab to verify it contains less than 15 ppm of gluten content.

5) Certification - Once a product is certified, the NSF certification mark can be used on packaging, advertising literature and on the company website. Certification is an ongoing process. Businesses are audited yearly, and have unannounced visits to verify that companies are maintaining their standards.

If you think this is a stringent process, you're right. Brandon Rudolph, one of the writers of the gluten-free certification protocols, told me that many businesses never get past the second step. As someone with Celiac Disease himself, Brandon fully understands just how important this process is.

Have you seen the NSF certification mark on products? It's a blue circle with the letter "NSF" written in the center, in white. The NSF gluten-free certification logo also includes a white ring around it with the words "certified gluten-free." Some products that bear this logo are Venice Bakery Pizza crusts, Toffee-Tastic gluten-free girl scout cookies made by Little Brownie Bakers, and Twin Lab children's Wicked Smart Gummies.

Trusting the Process 

A few years ago at church we were doing an overhaul on our Children's Ministry department. We implemented background checks and other safeguards for workers and for parents. Some people didn't understand why we were changing everything? Didn't we trust them anymore? 

My friend Niki explained it this way- When you're a new parent trying our church for the first time, you don't know anyone. How do you know who to trust? "If I don't know the people (and therefore don't know if they are trustworthy), then I am left with needing to trust the process." 

That's why third party gluten-free certification is so important. When we're trying a new product, we don't necessarily know the manufacturer or employees personally. Having a process we can trust our health to is necessary. It may make items cost more due to the certification process costs they in cure, but I think it's worth it to keep our health.

For more information about Celiac Disease you can visit NSF's website, including this infographic.

Do you tend to buy certified gluten-free products? What certification marks do you trust?

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