Natural Foods Merchandiser
NFM Secret Shopper: Gluten-free labels and claims

NFM Secret Shopper: Gluten-free labels and claims

Each month, NFM’s secret shopper heads incognito into a natural products store with a question. The employee’s answer—and our expert’s evaluation of the response—is reported here. Our aim: to help you improve your store’s customer service.

Natural Foods Merchandiser: I see a lot of different gluten-free labels and claims on products. Which ones should I trust?

Store (Natural products co-op in the Midwest): That depends on the severity of your gluten sensitivity. If you’re simply intolerant, you’ll be fine with products that just say gluten free. But if you have an allergy—like if you could die if you encounter gluten—look for certified gluten-free foods, and make sure the packaging is sealed tightly.

NFM: So some products are certified gluten free while others just claim to be?

Store: Yes. I believe there’s an organization that officially certifies products, but I’m not sure what it’s called. I think it ranks products by how much gluten is present. We offer a gluten-free shopping list to help you find items that should be safe. But we make the disclaimer that we can’t guarantee.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator, Rachel Begun, RD, author of The Gluten Free RD blog: The employee was correct in that there’s a higher level of safety with certified gluten-free products and there’s an official certification organization. In fact, there are three: Gluten Free Certification Organization, Celiac Sprue Association and Quality Assurance International. Gluten-free customers can trust that products certified by these organizations are safe. Because there’s no standardized Food and Drug Administration gluten-free labeling definition in place, noncertified products labeled as gluten free might be highly safe or not safe at all.

The employee did make a few mistakes, though. He incorrectly identified the categories of gluten sensitivity: celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy (there’s no such thing as a gluten allergy). Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body triggers an attack on the intestines when gluten is ingested. With gluten sensitivity, there’s no autoimmune attack or intestinal damage, but these people experience some of the same symptoms as celiac sufferers. A wheat allergy involves a different type of immune response: Rather than attack the body in the presence of wheat, the immune system triggers a response in order to remove offending wheat particles from the body. 

I love that the employee directed the customer to the store’s gluten-free product list. 

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.