Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and their hybrids, as well as items that have been contaminated with gluten by growing beside these grains. If you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease, then understanding which foods are free of gluten and which contain gluten is important. (Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which people experience damage to their small intestine when they consume gluten. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity also causes gastrointestinal symptoms from gluten consumption.)
The vast majority of cheese products (but not all) are free of gluten. With the exception of vegan cheese, most cheese products on the market are made primarily from the milk of cows, goats, or sheep. Typically, the milk used is pasteurized in order to kill off any possible harmful bacteria. Some cheese products are made from raw (unpasteurized) milk and may contain health-promoting bacteria, but they can also pose a risk of foodborne illness (also known as food poisoning).
What is cheese?
According to U.S. Dairy, cheese in its natural state is a food that is “made from four basic ingredients including milk, salt, a ‘good bacteria,’ and rennet, which is an enzyme. From there, cheesemakers can adjust the basic recipe by adding other ingredients to make all of the cheeses we know and love.” Cheese consists primarily of the curd, which is “the semisolid substance formed when milk curdles, or coagulates.” The cheese-making process has several steps, and different countries and cultures have their own spin on it. Many kinds of cheese are aged, which helps their unique depth of flavors to develop (and also affects how stinky they may become!).
In addition to the many types of cheeses we have come to know and love, such as cheddar, mozzarella, and Swiss, there are also cheeses that have been made to meet different nutritional needs, such as low-fat, fat-free, and reduced sodium.
Harvard School of Public Health says, “One can enjoy a modest amount of cheese as part of a healthful diet.” Aside from it typically being a source of saturated fat and sodium, cheese is a good source of calcium and protein. It also contains vitamins A, B2 and B12, as well as zinc and riboflavin.
Which types of cheese contain gluten?
Some cheese products may contain gluten, so it is important that you always read food labels carefully and contact food manufacturers for verification when necessary.
Some types of blue cheese may contain gluten, but it is not common. The status will depend on where exactly the mold is grown, since mold cultures of cheese may be grown on wheat or rye products. According to the nonprofit organization Beyond Celiac, blue cheese is usually free of gluten, but you should verify for certainty.
Beyond Celiac says cottage cheese is another type of cheese to be extra diligent about. It is usually gluten free, but some store-bought varieties may contain “wheat starch” or “starch” made from wheat.
Beyond the cheeses described above, any cheese or cheese product that has been processed beyond the creation “natural cheese,” such as cheese spread or shredded cheese, has a greater chance of containing gluten. Cross-contamination (also referred to as cross contact) is another concern regarding gluten — this is when the food is made with the same equipment as or otherwise comes into contact with gluten-containing products.
Gluten-free cheese list (according to Beyond Celiac):
- Cream cheese (cream cheese that is flavored may contain ingredients that have gluten, so check the ingredient list).
Cheese products explained (according to Beyond Celiac):
- Cheese powder is usually free of gluten, but you should check the ingredient label to be certain.
- Cheese spreads are usually gluten free, but read the ingredient label because questionable ingredients may be added to improve consistency and flavor.
- As of July 2022, Cheese Whiz is not listed as including any gluten-containing ingredients (but formulations may change, and it is not specifically certified as gluten free).
- Dairy-free cheese options include cheese alternatives, which are often made from plant-based ingredients, such as nuts, seeds, or soy. Although many dairy-free cheese products are gluten free, some dairy-free cheeses are made with flour or other gluten-containing ingredients, so read the ingredients label before eating dairy-free cheese. Other dairy-free spread options include experimenting with mashed avocado, which can add a creamy texture to your recipes and dishes. Nutritional yeast is a healthful gluten-free, dairy-free, and natural powder high in B vitamins that you can purchase from your local health food store. It has a cheesy flavor and can be sprinkled on top of dishes like pizza and pasta as a replacement to parmesan cheese.
- Shredded cheese is usually free of gluten. Some varieties may contain starch made from wheat. Read the ingredient label to verify whether it contains any gluten-containing ingredients.
- String cheese or “cheese sticks” are usually gluten free.
Want to learn if other common foods are gluten free? Visit our Diet section.