Gluten is a sneaky protein that is in a lot of different foods and products. Relatively few products tell you they are gluten-free right on the package. But for most products, it is unclear whether gluten is an ingredient or not.
So how can you find out if it’s in your food?
Unfortunately, you will have to figure it out on your own. The best approach is to read the list of ingredients on the product. Reading ingredients can be a daunting task because some foods contain chemicals and ingredients you’ve probably never heard of.
But with practice and the right information, you’ll be able to quickly find out if gluten is an ingredient.
How to Identify Gluten in an Ingredient List
Reading an ingredient list is one of the surest ways to tell if a product contains gluten. In this section I’ll show you how to read ingredient labels. From the ingredients you will be able to decide whether a food is safe, not safe, or does not give you enough information to decide.
If you are not sure about something, or it is not clear if there is gluten in the ingredients, then avoid the food or product. Just put it back on the shelf and go for something else. Easy as that!
“If you don’t know, don’t eat it!”
Gluten is never listed as an ingredient; therefore, you have to look for specific ingredients that contain gluten. Remembering all the ingredients that contain gluten makes label reading complicated.
The good news is you won’t need to check ingredients on a food every time you buy it. Generally speaking, food that is gluten-free today will still be that way next week. However, I recommend making periodic ingredient checks on food you eat just to be sure. Although it’s not the norm, ingredients sometimes change.
I have included a complete list of ingredients at the back of this book for your convenience. The list of ingredients will make it easy for you to check ingredients for gluten. If you are reading this on a Smartphone, Kindle, or tablet computer, go to the Table of Contents and click on the chapter called “Ingredient List.”
Now I will show you some sample ingredient labels and how to tell if a product is safe. It will take a while to learn how to read a label to see if the item is gluten-free. But remember, practice makes perfect. Every time you read ingredients you will get a little better at it.
The Federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990 require most food to bear nutrition labels and prescribe their form and content. They must state, among other things, the number of calories per serving and the amounts of fat, cholesterol, sodium, and fiber. Food that does not comply is deemed misbranded and invokes Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&CA) enforcement provisions.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 further amended the FD&CA. It requires food labels to state the presence of the eight major food allergens identified by the act. They are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans. These eight allergens are responsible for 90% of all food allergies. Notice that barley, rye, and oats are not in the list of eight nor are any of wheat’s many grain cousins like semolina, kamut, or triticale.
By lawingredients must be on most manufactured and processed food labels. However, some products and produce (i.e., at farmer’s markets or organic outlets) don’t have ingredient labels as they are not bound by the same food labeling laws. In that case, you should consult the manufacturer or producer about the ingredients and possible gluten contamination.
Reading a Label
Imagine you’re at the grocery store and you’ve picked up a product you are interested in. Usually on the side of the box or back of package is a typical ingredient list that looks like the ones in Figures 1-4 below.
Note: In each of the images below, I put red box lines around the ingredient(s) that either contain gluten or could potentially be a gluten ingredient.
The ingredient label in Figure 1 shows that wheat is one of the ingredients. You would want to avoid this product. The example in Figure 1 is a cheese and crackers “to go” product. Any prepackaged food with crackers likely contains gluten unless it specifies “gluten-free” on the box or package.
The next example is not so obvious. It is a candy bar that has barley malt in the ingredients. Barley malt is an ingredient that contains gluten:
The ingredient label in Figure 3 is not so clear. It turns out that the food is gluten-free, but it was not obvious from reading the ingredients. I had to contact the manufacturer and they informed me that there are no gluten ingredients:
The vaguest ingredients are ‘Natural’ or ‘Artificial Flavors.’ Both terms are generalized and can contain gluten. Natural or artificial flavors can come from or contain barley. Many manufacturers I have spoken with note that they will list barley separately as an ingredient if it is used in the flavorings. Nonetheless, I still recommend contacting the manufacturer of any food you’re not sure of.
Finally, this last ingredient list points out another important piece of information. Even if a product contains no gluten ingredients, you need to be informed about the facility and equipment where the product is made:
The product label in Figure 4 contains barley malt extract which contains gluten. But also note the statement at the bottom of the label: “MADE ON EQUIPMENT THAT ALSO PROCESSES WHEAT.” A similar statement you might see on labels is “MADE IN A FACILITY THAT ALSO PROCESSES WHEAT.”
Products processed on or in equipment that also process wheat have a high risk of being contaminated with gluten, even if they don’t contain any gluten ingredients.
Whether the food is manufactured on equipment or in a facility that contains wheat, it is worth talking with the manufacturer to find out more information. In some cases, manufacturers thoroughly clean their equipment between running every batch of food. In a case where the equipment is cleaned, you are probably safe.
If the manufacturer processes wheat on the same equipment but if the equipment is not sanitized, the risk of gluten contamination is too high and you should avoid the product.
Now you know how to check if a food is gluten-free. Reference the unsafe ingredient list at the end of this book to check foods as you review them. And remember, it takes practice to get good at reading labels. Don’t worry if you have to spend a lot of time on it at first. You will get better!
Do you have to read every label in a supermarket to find out if products are gluten-free? Absolutely not, as I’ve done at lot of the legwork for you.
Next I’ll talk about what food is gluten-free and safe to eat.