Reading labels can be a daunting task, for anyone, whether they have a gluten sensitivity or not. Learning how to read a label is crucial, however, to maintaining health while living gluten free. The only way to be absolutely sure that gluten is being avoided is to inspect the label. While some ingredients may sound harmless, they may potentially wreak havoc on anyone with an intolerance. The typical ingredients to absolutely avoid are wheat, barley, and rye. However, these three ingredients can be masked in many forms.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, made effective in 2004, requires food makers to list the top eight allergens whenever they are used in a food regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Wheat is a considered one of these top allergens, and so any foods containing wheat will be labeled as such. Meat, eggs, and poultry are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and therefore, they are not covered by this law. However, the USDA advises its food processors to declare all sources of allergens and has a policy of labeling gluten. Wheat typically includes, but is not limited to:
- abyssinian hard (wheat triticum duran)
- amp-isostearoyl hydrolyzed wheat protein
- atta flour
- cracked wheat
- emmer (also known as farro)
- macha wheat
- matzo semolina
- modified wheat starch
- oriental wheat
- persian wheat
- polish wheat
- semolina (durum wheat)
- timopheevi wheat
- triticum vulgare
- wheat bran
- wheat flour
- wheat germ
- wheat grass
- wheat protein
- wheat starch
- whole wheat
Although meat and poultry are safe, imitation crab meat is not, as it is fermented from barley.
Rye is not used very often and is not required to be labeled. However, it is mainly used in bread and will then, be labeled as such. Manufacturers are also not required to list barley as an ingredient, which is a grain used to make malt flavoring. If it is labeled however, it can be listed as barley, pearl barley, barley malt, barley grass, or malt – malt flavoring, malt extract, malt syrup, malt vinegar, etc. Although rare, barley can also be listed simply just as “flavoring.” If in doubt when “flavoring” is listed as an ingredient, simply call the manufacturer directly to ask if it is gluten free or not.
Oats have long been debatable as to whether or not they are gluten free. Oats themselves, are in fact, gluten free. However, they are often contaminated with wheat. Oats are never guaranteed gluten free, unless they are specially processed and labeled as certified gluten-free oats.
Bran is unsafe for a gluten free diet.
Salad dressings, along with mayonnaise, non-dairy creamers, and gravy may sometimes contain gluten if thickened with flour. Check the product labels to be sure, as every brand is different. Check out ten homemade gluten-free salad dressings.
Soy sauce is generally fermented from wheat and therefore, it should typically be avoided unless certified gluten-free. Organic tamari gluten-free soy sauce is one brand, to be specific. Always check the label. Teriyaki sauce is also not gluten free, unless labeled as so.
Many times, seasonings and seasoning mixes can contain gluten. However, if they do, the ingredients will list wheat. Spices, on the other hand, are gluten free. If there is no ingredient list on the spice jar, it contains only the pure spice noted on the label.
Hydrolyzed plant and vegetable protein may be derived from a gluten source.
Dextrin and maltodextrin can be derived from either wheat or corn. While corn is safe, wheat is obviously not. Again, however, wheat will be labeled if that is what it is derived from. Always check this! The same goes for caramel coloring.
Most licorice is not safe, as it contains barley.
Nearly all beer is not gluten free, since it contains a starch source – typically malted barley – to allow for fermentation. Particularly in recent years, however, manufacturers have begun to make alternatives to create beer that is gluten free. The most common substitutions are buckwheat, sorghum, rice, maize, corn, sunflower, amaranth, flax, millet, quinoa, teff, wild rice, soybean, ragi, and rape. Production of gluten free beer is constantly evolving and many breweries now prefer this style. Check out the Celiac Guide to Gluten Free Beer for more information.
Even if every ingredient has been read on a label, from top to bottom, be aware of any bold warnings that may be seen. Many products may be manufactured in a plant that also manufactures wheat products, and that warning is mandatory to be on a food label. Often, gluten is used on production lines, as well. Fried foods have the possibility of being contaminated in gluten food shared oil. This warning doesn’t necessarily mean that cross contamination occurred, however, it is merely a warning. It is telling you to proceed at your own risk, if you choose to eat that product.
Labels must always be read, every time they are purchased, even if bought regularly. Ingredients can change at any given time, as well as the processing methods, and reading labels is the best way to be assured that you know what is in your food.
Food should not be the only thing in which labels are read. Do not forget to check anything that you may be ingesting. Check labels of vitamins, chap stick, lip stick, toothpaste, mouthwash, and anything else that may be ingested through the mouth. Bug spray and sunscreen can also contain gluten. Many times the glue on stamps, envelopes, and stickers contain gluten. Laundry detergent may or may not contain gluten, as well.
With more awareness towards gluten free nowadays, many stores may have entire sections devoted to gluten free. This typically makes it easier, as most of the time the label can be avoided, as long as the product says “gluten-free” on it. However, once you know exactly what unsafe ingredients you are looking for, the process quickly becomes much easier.
So what items are always safe to eat? All plain fruits and vegetables are gluten free (fresh, frozen, and canned – although fresh is always healthier). Plain meat, poultry, and fish are also gluten free. Many products in the dairy department are safe to eat, including milk, butter, eggs, real cheese, and most yogurts. Real cheese means that which isn’t processed, packaged, and pre-shredded – stick to the deli section or buy cheese by the blocks. Beans and legumes are safe to eat, as is any form of rice (including enriched) – white, brown, basmati, etc. Anything derived strictly from corn is safe – corn chips, corn tacos, corn meal, corn flour, etc. Distilled vinegar is gluten free, as well as any distilled alcoholic beverages, since distillation effectively removes gluten from wheat. Potatoes are also gluten free, although experts sometimes claim to limit them. Plain nuts, popcorn, and rice cakes make for good, healthy snacks. Ice cream, ice pops, and frozen yogurt are often gluten free, but again, always double check the labels.
When in doubt, leave it out!