You are in the store trying to buy a seasoning mix, salad dressing, pasta sauce, or marinade, and you don’t know if it’s gluten free. How do you figure it out? This is a topic that needs to be addressed repeatedly for people who are new to the gluten-free diet. Figuring out what is gluten-free isn’t that hard.
What makes it difficult is old information that people find on the Internet or hear from others. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2000, it was hard. But food labeling laws in the United States have changed, which makes it much easier to determine of food is gluten free. Here’s what you need to know.
Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, and contaminated oats. You can read more about what gluten is here.
Out of those four ingredients, wheat is by far the biggest problem. It is also the easiest ingredient to identify. Because wheat is one of the top eight allergens, it must be listed on a product label if it is an ingredient or part of an ingredient in a product. For example, if a product contains modified food starch which is made from wheat, the word “wheat” has to be on the label. If it’s not, you can be sure the food starch is gluten-free.
This is another easy ingredient. It’s easy because it is not often used in foods and when it is, it is labeled as “rye.” It’s not the kind of ingredient that will be used in other ingredients.
Barley is the trickiest ingredient. Because it is not one of the top eight allergens, it does not have to be clearly identified on a label. It can be part of another ingredient, and in fact, it is usually part of any ingredient with the word “malt.” That includes malt flavoring, barley malt, malt vinegar, or just malt. The exception to this is maltodextrin which is a gluten-free ingredient. According to Gluten-Free Living Magazine, barley malt can be listed as “flavoring,” but it is rare.
Pure oats are considered gluten-free and safe for most people on a gluten-free diet (a small percentage of people with celiac disease do react to oats). Most oats, however, are contaminated with wheat and are therefore unsafe. Oats listed on the label of any regular grocery store product should be assumed to contain wheat.
While ingredients like barley do not have to be clearly stated on labels, many companies are aware of the large group of gluten-free consumers and voluntarily offer information on their labels. Besides doing things like stating “barley malt” instead of just “malt,” many companies offer additional information about processing. You may see statements such as “This product is produced on equipment that also produces wheat.” Personally, I avoid products with such warnings.
Because there are currently no standards for gluten-free food labeling, you cannot assume that a product which states “gluten-free” is safe for you to eat. People have different reasons for being on a gluten-free diet and because of that tolerate different levels of gluten in their food. Zero gluten is impossible to attain in a processed food. If you have celiac disease or are very sensitive to gluten, then some foods which are labeled gluten free and tested to 20 parts per million may still bother you. Many people have reported having reactions to such foods. In that case, it is helpful to find companies that only product gluten-free products or that are part of a certification program such as GFCO.
Please remember that ingredients in products do change. Just because a particular brand of an item is gluten-free today, does not mean it will be tomorrow. Make it a habit to always scan labels. I would much rather be safe than sorry. How about you?
Related articles can be found on my Gluten-Free Diet Information page.