Note: This article was updated Jan. 2015 to reflect the new gluten-free labeling laws implemented Aug. 2014. Once again, I updated this article in April 2016 to add new information, particularly some new information regarding oats.
After learning we must live gluten-free, arming ourselves with solid starter info on what we can eat right away (that’s what I call a No Thought Required Gluten Free Foods List that you can find in my book, The Gluten-Free Solution), learning to read food labels is at the top of the list in terms of what to do next to keep gluten out of your life (and out of your mouth!).
Gluten-Free Label Reading
Let’s take a look at labels for packaged foods and determine where we can find gluten listed on the label and how to know where gluten can hide out in the ingredients list. We will also take a quick look at food labeling for gluten and other allergens. These skills will go a long way in keeping gluten at bay!
Gluten is rarely, if ever, listed as an ingredient in and of itself, so first, let’s get to know gluten-containing grains. (Of course, there are certified gluten-free products out there – learn about gluten-free certification here – but we are talking about “mainstream” packaged foods here.)
Gluten Grains – Detecting Gluten in Packaged Foods
The most common gluten grains (wheat and wheat derivatives) in packaged foods can be remembered by the acronym BROW – Barley, Rye, Oats and Wheat.
To help keep us from scratching our brow when we attempt to navigate the grocery aisles, here’s some useful info to help us detect gluten in packaged foods.
Barley – Malt is the most common barley ingredient, used as a flavoring and flavor enhancement ingredient in a wide range of foods and beverages. It may also be used as a thickener in soups and stews.
Common barley ingredients to look for: pearl barley, hulled barley, barley extract, barley syrup, barley flavoring, barley enzymes and maltose (malt sugar).
These ingredients are most often found in: packaged dry cereal, malted milk, malt vinegar, beer and other malt beverages (like “hard” lemonade and wine coolers).
Unsuspecting places to look for barley: in rice milk, rice syrup (especially brown rice syrup), sauces, soups, protein bars and snack foods.
Rye – Not as common as barley, oats and wheat in packaged foods, rye shows up most often in rye bread and rye crackers, which would also contain wheat.
Rye has been cross bred with wheat to form a hybrid grass, triticale, which you may see listed under “gluten grains to avoid”.
Oats – Oats are one of the gray areas in the gluten-free diet, and one that is often debated. As of my 2016 update, this is more true than ever before. While we won’t be debating whether or not one should or should not consume oats on a gluten-free diet, we will turn to science-backed facts.
At one time, when oats were an ingredient in a gluten-free product, we could assume those oats were grown under a gluten-free purity protocol and that “regular” oats were not used in the product.
What is a gluten-free purity protocol?
While the process is far more involved than we can go into here, here is a brief overview of what a gluten-free purity protocol grown oat means.
Pure oat seed stock is planted in a field that is known to be gluten-free based on field history auditing. The field is also audited again prior to harvest to ensure there is no gluten there. The equipment used to harvest oats is inspected to be certain it is free from gluten. Once harvested, oats are housed in a dedicated gluten-free facility. Processing takes place at a dedicated gluten-free mill and packaging is completed on a dedicated gluten-free line. An outside company then tests the final product to be sure the oats are gluten-free.
Now, with advanced technology and BIG food wanting to cash in on the gluten-free food market, we see mechanically sorted or optically sorted oats in products that are labeled gluten-free. These methods of removing wheat from oats became big news when General Mills announced their Cheerios cereal would be gluten-free.
You can visit their site to learn more if you are interested, but GM says on their blog they “developed a way to sort out the small amount of wheat, rye and barley in our supply of whole oats that are inadvertently introduced at the farms where the oats are grown, or during transportation of the whole oats to our mill in Minnesota.”
Now, one would think someone with celiac disease would just shut down the works right there, but that’s not what happened. Gluten-free bloggers became quite divided on the topic of the “safety” of the cereal. Some proudly posted selfies on social media with their personalized cereal box and others (like me) took the “hold on a minute here” approach and dug into the facts before cheering on GM. Not to mention, there was no shortage of consumer reports about becoming ill after consuming the cereal.
I didn’t try it (safety first over here, you know) so I can’t speak to those claims, but what I can tell you is I am 100% in favor of purity protocol oats. The choice is an individual one, but should be an informed one.
Basics about gluten-free oats:
- Technically, oats do not contain the same protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and other gluten-containing grains.
- Some individuals with celiac disease cannot tolerate oats and react to them as if they were gluten. This may be explained by the next point.
- Oats are traditionally processed in facilities that handle other (gluten-filled) grains like wheat. Airborne particles and residual dust on processing equipment is enough to contaminate oats processed after wheat or other gluten-containing grains. (This is where the mechanical and optical sorting would come in, separating the oats from the “other stuff”.)
You may find this list of Oats Produced under Gluten Free Purity Protocol from Gluten Free Watch Dog useful. This site should be bookmarked for keeping up with the oat debate.
You may also want to read my article on oats, how they can help reduce stress in the body and consuming oats on a gluten-free diet.
Now, in mainstream products, we all know certified gluten-free oats are not used, so avoid those oat-containing foods just like any other gluten-filled food.
That means avoiding: rolled oats, quick oats, steel cut oats, Irish steel cut oats, oatmeal, instant oatmeal and oat berries.
Oat ingredients are most often found in: hot and cold cereals, desserts, granola bars, snack foods, baked goods.
Less obvious places oats can appear in packaged foods: as a thickener (in soups) and in supplements (oat fiber).
Wheat – Wheat is the most common form of gluten we associate with foods to avoid when we must be gluten-free.
Almost any product made from flour contains wheat.
Common places wheat appears in packaged foods: breads, cakes, cookies, bagels, crackers, pasta and cereals.
Less common places wheat may appear in packaged foods: wheat starch is sometimes added as a thickener or binder to foods like sauces (including soy sauce), dry sauce mixes, gravy, dry gravy mixes, canned soups, cornbread mixes, fish fry batter mixes, dairy products like sour cream, cottage cheese and yogurt, and processed meats like sausage, hot dogs, cold cuts/deli meats and broth injected meat, pork and poultry.
There are many varieties and names for wheat: bulgur, couscous, dinkle, durum, einkorn, emmer, Farina®, fu, graham, kamut, seitan, semolina and spelt.
Other common wheat products: wheat berries, wheat germ, wheat germ oil, wheat grass (also called triga), wheat gluten, wheat nut and wheat starch.
With all this wheat around, how can we possibly avoid it?! At least with wheat, food allergen labeling helps a bit.
Food Allergen Labeling
Update: The following stricken information about gluten-free food labeling was applicable until August 2014, when the new FDA Guidelines for Gluten-Free Food Labeling went into effect. You can read my initial take on these guidelines here. I go into detail on this topic (and many others) in my book, The Gluten-Free Solution: Your Ultimate Guide to Positive Gluten-Free Living.
As you likely know, due to the lack of federal guidelines defining and regulating the meaning of “gluten free” and the continued absence of a law mandating the labeling of gluten in foods, food manufacturers are able to define the term (and label) however they choose as long as it is not outright misrepresentation of ingredients (“misrepresentation” is also a gray area subject to interpretation). While many mainstream companies are attempting to set some sort of standard and label products as accurately as possible, without a federal regulation, the onus continues to fall on the consumer to make the best decision regarding foods we purchase and consume.
To help us make the best choices and to avoid the eight most predominant food allergengs, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 requires that Big 8 Food Allergens (wheat, soy, milk, egg, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts) be listed on product labels by their common name, either in the ingredients list or just below it in a “Contains” or “Allergens” statement.
Note wheat on that list. Since wheat is a gluten-containing ingredient, that is at least a bit of help for those of us who must be gluten-free. When we see “Contains: Wheat” on a label, we automatically know there is no need to read the ingredients list. That item goes right back on the shelf.
FALCPA covers all packaged foods sold in the U.S. regulated by the FDA (domestic and imported foods), including all foods except meat, poultry and egg products. (These are regulated by the USDA).
While the following really no longer applies due to the new gluten-free labeling law in effect as of Aug. 2014, I’m leaving the links to other articles up, as they may be useful to you in grocery shopping for you gluten-free items.
You may sometimes see “No Gluten Ingredients” labeling on packaged foods (especially in Trader Joe’s stores). I provide an explanation of that labeling in THIS ARTICLE, along with 3 Useful Tips for Successful (Gluten-Free) Grocery Shopping.
Of course, with any list or guideline, this one is not all-inclusive. It is, however, quite thorough and I hope you find it useful in your search for quality gluten-free foods.
For your best health, I recommend you make your diet of 90% whole, fresh foods and limit the amount of highly processed, sugar-laden foods you eat. Science tells us time and time again that is a sure bet to keeping our bodies in top working form!