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Gluten Free Label Reading Made Easy


The Beginner’s Guide to Gluten Free Label Reading

 Gluten free label reading can be overwhelming at first, especially if you do not know what to look for. To help, we put together some basic information about labels and spotting gluten containing ingredients.  With these rules you will soon be reading labels like a pro.

 Which Foods Naturally Contain Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross of wheat and rye).  If these are listed in the ingredients the product is not gluten free. Some mistakenly believe that Kamut, einkorn and spelt (varieties of wheat) are gluten free. Though they have reduced levels of gluten, they still contain gluten and are therefore unsafe for those with Celiac disease.

Five Words to Look for on Labels

By being alert for the words wheat, barley, rye, malt and brewer’s yeast will find 99% of gluten containing foods.  Oats do not contain gluten, but are often cross contaminated, so it is better to eat oats labeled as gluten free. 

 Barley and malt are the most challenging ingredients from the above list.  Malt is made from barley.  This may turn up on labels as malt, malt flavoring, malt syrup or malt vinegar.  Traditional vinegar is safe for the gluten free diet but not malt vinegar.  A good example of finding malt in unexpected places is in crispy rice cereal.  This product seems like it should be gluten free, but has gluten because malt is used as a flavoring.

 FDA Rules on Allergen Labeling

The FDA requires that packaged food must give allergen information for the 8 major allergens which are: milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans.  These allergens may be listed in several ways. (1) If the allergen appears in the ingredient list itself, no additional notation is required. (2) If an ingredient contains the allergen but it is not named as such, the allergen can be placed in parenthesis after the ingredient.  For instance, a list might say flour followed with (wheat).  3) Allergens may also be listed in a contains statement following the ingredient list with all the allergens listed.

What about Natural Flavors? If a natural flavor contains any of the 8 major allergens listed above, it must be on the label in one of the forms described in the previous paragraph. The same rule applies to coloring agents. If nothing is listed, it is free of the 8 major allergens.

 Should I be Concerned about “May Contain” Statements?

“May Contain” statements on labels are a company’s way to tell you that foods with allergens are handled in the same factory.  Although those allergens are not ingredients in that particular food, they may be present as a cross-contaminant. This type of statement is not required by the FDA. Each consumer must make his own decision as to whether to eat food with a may contains statement.  Food companies make an efforts to keep cross contaminating allergens out. The risk is low, but still exists.

Ingredients that Confuse People

Even with the rules above there are often questions about several ingredients.  Maltodextrin is not a malt product and therefore not made from barley. Maltodextrin is starch, usually from corn that has been partially converted to sugars.  

Caramel Color is often listed in literature about Celiac disease as possibly containing wheat.  Modern caramel color is not made from wheat.  Also, with changes made to food labeling laws, products must list any of the 8 major allergens even in coloring agents.

 Other Useful Resources

If you are still uncomfortable reading labels your might try an app to help you determine gluten free foods like The Gluten Free Scanner, Is That Gluten Free, Sift Food Labels or Shopwell Diet Allergy Scanner.  You can also find a list of gluten containing ingredients at Celiac.com. 

 With these simple rules and some practice you will be well on your way to mastering the gluten free label reading.


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