Label Reading 101 for a Gluten Free Diet
Note: This article was updated Jan. 2015 to reflect the new gluten-free labeling laws implemented Aug. 2014.
If you’re new to gluten-free living, you may feel overwhelmed. (It gets easier, I promise!)
If you’re an old pro at avoiding gluten, you may feel like you know it all.
I’m happy to tell you, there’s a nice open space of “middle ground” between those extremes where we can stay relatively safe and free from gluten. Of course, that takes work.
After learning we must be gluten-free and 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“, which you should check out if you’re new to the gluten-free diet), 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!).
Label Reading 101 on a Gluten Free Diet
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.
We won’t be debating, we’ll just turn to science-backed facts. Here are the basics:
- 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.
- Certified gluten-free oats manufactured in a dedicated facility are available to those of us who wish to (and are able to) consume them. I recommend you only consume gluten-free oats if you must live gluten-free, or you are likely to be cross-contaminated by gluten.
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.
Now, those are some of the more obvious sources of gluten in packaged foods. But there are other (less-obvious) ingredients that may contain gluten. There are also a few additives folks seem to be unsure about that crop up to cause confusion. Let’s clear up at least a few of these misconceptions.
Some Potential Sources of Hidden Gluten in Packaged Foods (and a few false alarms)
No gluten here! (If you’re in North America.)
Commonly added to foods and beverages, caramel color can be made from barley or other gluten grain products; HOWEVER, gluten-containing ingredients are no longer used to make caramel coloring in North America. Companies use glucose from corn and sometimes sucrose to make caramel color.
Could be gluten here!
Dextrin is a starch, typically derived from corn, potato, arrowroot, rice or tapioca here in the US; however, it can be made from wheat.
Remember, if wheat-based ingredients are used, those should be listed in a “Contains” or “Allergen” statement per FALCPA law.
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Could be gluten here!
Also called hydrolyzed plant protein, textured vegetable protein or HVP, this ingredient could contain protein obtained from wheat. While most is made from soy, corn or peanuts, wheat ingredients are sometimes used.
Look for the allergen statement before consuming products containing this ingredient.
No gluten here! (If you’re in North America.)
Maltodextrin is made from corn or potatoes in the US and Canada; however, maltodextrin from other countries could be made using wheat starch, so beware of foreign-made foods with this ingredient.
Modified food starch
No gluten here! (If you’re in the USA.)
Added as a thickener and stabilizer, modified food starch can be made from corn, tapioca, potato, wheat, or other base ingredient. Corn is nearly always the source in North America. Potato and rice are occasionally used.
Wheat-based food starch, as we said earlier, must be listed per FALCPA law.
In the US, “starch” on a food label means cornstarch, which is gluten-free (we’ll get to GMOs in an upcoming series, so hold your horses if you’re thinking that cornstarch should be non-GMO!)
Could be gluten here! (Depending on variety.)
Many vinegars are gluten-free: Balsamic, rice, rice wine, wine and apple cider vinegars are naturally gluten-free. The only exception would be if “other” ingredients (like flavorings) are added. Check the label.
Malt vinegar is derived from barley and is NOT gluten-free.
Some Additional Tips to Keep in Mind When Reading Food Labels
1. Organic does not mean gluten-free.
There are certainly plenty of organic gluten-free foods on the market, but just because a food is organic does NOT mean it is gluten-free.
2. Gluten-free does not mean healthy. (I give a really detailed look at this topic in my book, The Gluten-Free Solution, and tell you how to make gluten-free living a positive and healthy choice every day.)
Gluten-free foods can be healthy, but by and large, what I refer to as “gluten-free box foods” are not. I always tell groups I speak to that those bags of gluten-free mixes for cakes, cookies, etc. are “big ol’ bags of inflammation”. I’m right, too!
I’m not saying you should never turn to those products – that’s up to you. What I am saying is a naturally gluten-free diet is nutritious, affordable and rather simple to manage if we turn to naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins (from plants like quinoa or amaranth and from animal products like meat, poultry, pork and eggs, depending on personal preference).
There is always room for a treat, but breads, cakes, cookies, crackers, etc., even when gluten-free, should not make up the bulk of anyone’s diet.
3. You may run across products labeled “specially processed to remove gluten”.
These products are treated to remove gluten and may list a wheat-containing ingredient like wheat starch on the label.
This is possible due to the
proposed gluten-free labeling law for gluten in foods as set out by the US FDA. The proposed guidelines state such ingredients may be used as long as the final product contains no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten.
The ultimate decision to consume such products or not is up to the consumer; however, note some individuals are extremely sensitive to gluten, even at the 20 ppm level, and could become ill from eating these foods.
4. Pay attention to advisory labels on products.
While these warnings are purely voluntary, with no regulation at all, they do provide consumers with additional information about the possibility of cross-contamination by an allergen (wheat or other) during processing.
These advisory labels show up as “May contain…” or “Produced in a facility that also produces products made with…” or “Produced on equipment that also produces products that contain…”
Again, as with those “specially processed to remove gluten” products, it is up to you to decide whether or not to consume these foods, but if wheat (or another gluten gran) is involved, it is a risk.
5. Always, always read labels, even if you’ve bought a particular product 100 times before.
I cannot repeat this enough!
Manufacturers can (and do!) change formulations, ingredients, recipes and suppliers without our knowledge. That may mean a product we’ve enjoyed for years suddenly makes us ill due to an ingredient change from a gluten-free ingredient to a gluten-containing or a gluten-contaminated ingredient. It only takes a moment to flip over the package and give it a glance! ;)
This is not an all-inclusive guide to reading labels on our gluten-free diet but it’s an excellent (and thorough) starting point for anyone just going gluten-free (or for those who want to brush-up on the “rules”)!
For the best resource available for gluten-free products (food and more!), please visit my friends at the Gluten Free Resource Directory.
As always, I encourage you to SHARE THIS INFORMATION with anyone you believe may need it. If we can all help “just one”, we’ll be doing a great service to our gluten free community.
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