Making the switch to a gluten free diet can be a challenge. In fact, it may seem like a daunting or even overwhelming task if you’ve recently been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The best thing you can do is remove gluten from your diet as quickly as possible, and that means learning what gluten is and where to look for it in the foods you eat every day.
Unfortunately, it is not always obvious when a food product contains gluten. You’ll need to learn about the different food sources of gluten and how to identify them on food labels. To help you make the transition, we’ve created a gluten free guide to reading food labels.
Keep reading to learn more…
How to Identify Sources of Gluten
Before you learn how to read a food label, you need to know what gluten is and what foods contain it. As you may already know, gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains including wheat, barley, and rye. It is made up of two primary proteins, gliadin and glutenin, which are responsible for triggering the immune reaction in celiac disease and the inflammatory response in non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
But where exactly can you expect to find gluten?
When reading a food label, you can’t expect to see “gluten” listed as an ingredient. You may not even see wheat, barley, or rye explicitly listed, but that doesn’t mean the product is gluten free. There are many different forms of wheat and wheat-based ingredients, as well as different ingredients derived from barley and rye.
Here is a list of hidden sources of gluten to watch out for:
- Wheat flour
- Wheat starch
- Modified Food Starch
- Hydrolyzed Protein
- Natural & Artificial Flavors/Colors
- Caramel Color/Flavoring
- Brewer’s yeast
If you see any of these foods included in the name, description, or ingredients list for a food product, it is not safe to consume on a gluten free diet. Sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, there are many hidden sources of gluten you are likely to encounter as well. Keep reading to learn how to identify sources of gluten on a food label and how to interpret the other information on that label.
The Basics of FDA Food Labeling
There is currently no rule which requires food manufacturers to state whether their products contain gluten. According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, all manufactured foods are required by the FDA to carry an allergen warning if the product contains one of the 8 most common allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. As you can see, gluten is not included in this list. If a product lists “wheat” in the allergen warning, it is a good sign that the product may contain gluten, but not a guarantee.
In order for a product to be labeled “gluten free,” the FDA requires that it either be naturally gluten free or free from ingredients that are:
- A gluten-containing grain (like wheat, barley, or rye).
- Derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten.
- Derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (less than 200ppm gluten).
Even if the food label identifies the product as gluten free, however, you should still check the allergen warning and read the ingredients list because mistakes have been known to happen and it is always better to be safe than sorry.
When it comes to gluten free food, remember “when in doubt, go without”. And if you do have any reservations about the food, always go with dedicated gluten free companies, like Schär, that keep the safety of their products of utmost importance, and does rigorous testing (even on their packaging).
You should also consider the fact that food products that test up to 20 ppm gluten are legally allowed to carry the gluten free label – if you are extremely sensitive to gluten, even a food that is labeled gluten free according to this rule might cause a reaction.
Common Food Sources of Gluten
Because you’ve already learned which ingredients contain gluten, you probably have a pretty good idea what kind of foods you need to avoid on the gluten free diet. It is helpful to know, however, what kinds of foods you need to pay special attention to when it comes to identifying gluten-containing ingredients.
Here are some of the most common food sources of gluten:
- Baked goods
- Cereal bars
- Granola bars
- Salad dressings
- Protein bars
- Snack foods
Just because the foods on this list are likely to contain gluten doesn’t mean that you have to completely eliminate them from your diet. There are plenty of gluten free food manufacturers out there that offer gluten free versions of your favorite convenience foods. For example, Schär offers a variety of gluten free baked goods, snacks, pastas, baking mixes, and more.
Even when purchasing food products that are labeled gluten free, however, you need to be careful. Remember the three FDA requirements from the previous section – just because a product is labeled gluten free doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t contain traces of gluten. Even products that carry the Certified Gluten-Free label may contain up to 20ppm gluten.
Look for Hidden Sources of Gluten
After checking the allergen warning and reviewing the food label for gluten free claims, your next step is to review the ingredients list. If you don’t see any of the gluten-containing grains from the first section listed, don’t think you are home free yet – there are many hidden sources of gluten that you should be aware of. Here is a quick list of foods which may or may not contain gluten:
- Deli meats
- Veggie burgers
- Meat alternatives
- Bacon bits
- Imitation crab
- Canned soups
- Cream-based soups
- Soup bases
- Boxed potatoes
- Potato chips
- Flavored chips
- French fries
- Restaurant eggs/omelets
- Blue cheese
- Soy sauce
- Teriyaki sauce
- Hoisin sauce
- Salad dressings
- Pie filling
- Spice mixes
- Instant drinks
- Chewing gum
- Self-basting turkey
In addition to checking the ingredients themselves for hidden sources of gluten, you can also review the other content on the label for clues. If you see words like “fried,” “crispy,” “crusted,” or “coated,” it should send up a red flag – the product is likely battered or tossed in flour. Malt is another code word to watch for – it is derived from barley, so ingredients like malt vinegar, malt syrup, or malt flavoring may contain gluten.
If you’ve read the ingredients list and you still aren’t sure whether a product is gluten free, you have two more options. First, you can go to the manufacturer’s website and see if they offer any statements about using gluten-containing ingredients in their products. If you can’t find the information yourself, you could also contact the company by phone or email.
Another option is to check gluten free forums and websites that do this kind of research themselves – you may be able to find the product in question on a list somewhere which tells you whether or not it is gluten free. Some quality sources to check include Beyond Celiac, the Celiac Disease Foundation, and the Gluten Intolerance Group.
What Foods Are Safe to Eat?
By now it may seem like you don’t have many options when it comes to finding safe, gluten free foods. It is true that finding gluten free convenience foods can be tricky, but there are still plenty of foods out there that are naturally free from gluten. Here’s a quick list:
- Dairy products
- Herbs and spices
There are also some grains, starchy foods, and pantry staples that are naturally gluten free. You may still want to check the label for these products, but they are generally safe for the gluten free diet. Examples include the following foods:
- Almond flour
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Cocoa powder
- Coconut flour
- Cooking oil
- Sweet potato
- Vanilla extract
- Xanthan gum
Remember, if you’re purchasing a canned or processed version of any of these foods, you still need to check the label. Even if you’re using foods that are naturally gluten free, you also need to be careful of cross-contamination. Do not use the same cooking utensils to prepare gluten free foods that you use for gluten-containing foods - this includes cookware, cutting boards, cutlery, and serving dishes. You even need to be careful about using the same cleaning supplies such as sponges and scrubbers.
No matter why you are following the gluten free diet, the more you learn about reading food labels the better off you will be. It always pays to be safe rather than sorry, so take the time to develop this skill and soon you’ll be able to tell whether a product is gluten free with a quick glance at the label.