May 16, 2010


Is it Gluten-Free? Reading Labels

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 have changed, and made my life much easier.  Here’s what you need to know.

Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, and contaminated oats. 


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. 

Additional Information

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.  Generally though, it is not an issue with things like sauces and salad dressings.

Always Read Labels

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?


These hidden promalines are in almost every packaged and prepared foods. That is why it's important to eat real, whole foods. Thanks for posting this. It's important!!
It is sad, but I feel like I am the only person at my grocery store who actually stands there and reads the labels most of the time! It wasn't until I went gluten free that I really realized how much horrible stuff (chemicals, preservatives, etc.) is actually in all of the food today! And sadly, despite labeling being better, I can attest that both my mother and mother in law cannot for the life of them read a label and tell if it's "gluten free" or not...or my husband for that matter, it is hard to do!
what about things like caramel color or mixed seasonings that use wheat flour, albeit a tiny bit, to make the seasoning flow. those do not include the word Wheat nor does it show up in the Allergy warning.
Caramel color is made from corn according to the manufacturers of caramel color. They say corn makes the best product.

Some mixed seasonings do contain wheat, such as a chili seasoning mix, and wheat is stated in the ingredients. The idea of using wheat to make it free flowing is old information and I don't think it was ever true, but if a company does do that, it has to be stated. These days I find that companies are giving lots of information such as the additional information I mentioned above, not necessarily to help us, but so they don't get sued.
Partly because I've continued to suffer from some lingering issues, I don't purchase anything that has those ambiguous terms like "caramel color" or "spices" or "flavorings" without confirmation that the product is indeed gluten-free. I have a grocery guide from Triumph that does help some, and I've been known to contact companies to determine the status of their products.
Great reminders, Linda. Yes, this is something folks struggle with ... especially those new to the gluten-free diet.

I'd add a couple of points. First, it's not just wheat that contaminates oats, but any gluten per Tricia Thompson who did the landmark study that showed how much gluten was actually in "mainstream" oats. Like you said though, if the oats are not certified gluten free, one has to consider that they are not safe.

According to the food allergen labeling law, manufacturers are allowed to either list the allergen in the listing of ingredients or at the end of the ingredients. So a product could read Ingredients: "Corn, sugar, xanthan gum, wheat, potato starch" OR "Corn, sugar, xanthan gum, modified food starch, potato starch" CONTAINS: Wheat." I mention that because this topic came up at one of our meetings. So many folks had gotten used to just reading the CONTAINS: statement and not looking at the other ingredients. One can't do that, because manufacturers only have to list the eight major allergens, so often that goes in the CONTAINS statement, but many manufacturers do list ALL gluten ingredients. However, you have to read the entire listing to see other gluten ingredients, like malt, in the listing itself. Hope that makes sense. Just in case, here's a helpful sheet (PDF) that the American Celiac Disease Alliance put out when the law was being passed:

Great information Linda, thanks for posting this!

Shirley, thank you for bringing those points up too, I have caught myself a few times scanning the CONTAINS statement, putting a product in my cart, only to recheck the ingredient label and see "barley malt flavoring" somewhere in the long list of ingredients. I like the companies that bold type BARLEY to help it stand out, but not all of them do that.

Dreaming of the day there is a federal regulation for the term "gluten-free," sigh...
Shirley ~ Great points. I always read the whole label and forgot to point that out.
One more thing I wanted to add, but forgot is that the "Manufactured in a facility that also processes wheat" and "Manufactured on shared equipment." are voluntary statements by the manufacturer. This is important because it means there is no "policing" of this info. And, while most of us would steer clear of products with the latter warning, we might have a false sense of security there. Some both interesting and alarming data came out of information submitted to the Food and Drug Administration when it was collecting input for use in developing its standard for “gluten-free” status on a product. (I know ... still collecting that data or not ready to establish a standard as Heidi referenced.) At the time, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) presented data that showed that more peanuts were actually present in products that stated they were made in the “same facility as products containing peanuts” than products that “shared equipment as products containing peanuts.” This data was an eye-opener to many who thought they had been making the better choice. Specifically, most people had stated that they would not eat products made on the same equipment as products containing their allergen of concern, but significantly less people were concerned if the products were simply made in the same facility as products containing that allergen. Obviously, FAAN’s intent in sharing this information with the FDA was to show how meaningless food labels can be as well as the scope of the food allergen issues within food manufacturing. I know it's in the big FDA statement online somewhere, but you can read about it here at this blog post: While we are not concerned with peanuts, my feeling is that's it's probably true of all the allergens.

Hi Shirley,

Thanks for some great reminders! It's hard to stay away from anything that's not labeled or stated by the company as gluten free. So I do come across lots of "maybes". And more so when the product is from outside of the US or Canada. A friend recently brought me back a bottle of yummy smelling pure vanilla extract from Mexico, but it has caramel coloring so I'm not sure!!

Clear gluten free labeling is something I hope we can achieve in the future - it would make life much easier!!!
Great minds think alike! I wrote a post with labels in mind today but yours is better so I'm linking you!

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