As many of us who shop for groceries know, gluten can appear in many shapes and forms on a product label. Lots of brands do label their products gluten-free and some even go the extra mile to get a gluten-free certification — but there are still thousands that don’t. So, what does that mean if you have gluten sensitivity or have been diagnosed with celiac disease?
*Colossal sigh*… label reading.
Hunched over, glasses out, squinting through 10-point font trying to unearth every shred of potential gluten in the ingredients and manufacturer’s statement. Sound familiar? First off, don’t worry — the Spoonful App has you covered.
But in addition to using apps, it’s important to develop your own understanding of how to read labels and identify gluten-containing ingredients.
…and that’s exactly what this article will help you do. Let’s get into it!
Gluten-free labels 101: spotting the usual suspects
In many cases, gluten is fairly easy to distinguish on a product label. Look for ingredient phrases containing wheat, barley, or rye (aka the usual suspects), and be wary of ingredients like malt and dextrin, which may contain gluten depending on how they were derived (more on this to come).
Then there’s the many forms of wheat — ingredients like semolina, farro, and farina (note: not an exhaustive list) are all wheat derivatives, but are processed and used in different ways. For example, farina is a type of milled wheat used to make hot cereal, while farro, a hulled wheat, is often served as a salad or soup topper. Getting the wheat derivatives down is a major step in your gluten fluency, but unfortunately, it’s not the end.
Labels 201: ingredients that “may contain” gluten
Okay, we’re into the thick stuff now. Let’s take your label reading skills to new heights by identifying where gluten may be present — even if it doesn’t have a typical gluten-containing ingredient like those mentioned above.
Ingredients with unidentified sources
In many cases, the trickiest ingredients to navigate are vague catch-alls where the brand doesn’t provide more detail. Take the ingredient natural flavors, for example — it appears at the end of countless labels and represents a “black box” of sorts for people with food-based conditions. If the flavors have a top eight allergen (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybean), the brand must specify — but when they aren’t, the brand doesn’t have to reveal a thing.
So, here’s what you do if you come across vague terms like natural flavors, starch, and malt (again, not an exhaustive list):
- Check the label for a gluten-free claim or certification.
- If you don’t see one, check the brand’s website or give them a call.
If you can’t get more information, we recommend replacing this product with something else. Don’t worry! There are hundreds of gluten-free options in every aisle.
Ingredients with unspecified processing
Ingredients like barley grass, wheatgrass, wheat starch, and oats (this actually is an exhaustive list), may or may not contain gluten depending on how they are processed. For example, wheatgrass, if harvested at the proper time, will not contain the seed (i.e. grain). However, if harvested too late, the wheatgrass will start to develop protein, aka gluten.
In this case, since much of this information is not disclosed, you’ll want to look for a certified gluten-free label or contact the brand directly to learn more.
Cross-contact (or cross-contamination)
Cross-contact occurs when a gluten-free product is exposed to a gluten-containing ingredient or food during the manufacturing process. While this is generally not an issue for people with a gluten intolerance, it can cause issues if you have a gluten allergy or celiac disease.
By far the most common example is oats. Though oats do not contain gluten in their natural form, they are highly susceptible to cross-contact during the harvesting, production, and even packaging process.
When you see oats on a label, make sure the product is gluten-free certified or made with gluten-free oats (many products actually call this out directly). Be advised! Some oat products may still exceed the celiac safe 20ppm (parts per million) of gluten even when they have a gluten-free claim. Again, you’ll want to look for a certification or the term “gluten-free oats” to be safe.
Practice, practice, practice
We know it sounds trite, but the best way to improve your label reading skills is practice. Next time you’re at the store, make it a goal to add one new product to your shopping cart. Try a new sauce, or maybe add a new snack bar to your arsenal. If you need help at any point, we hope you give the Spoonful App a shot!
Spoonful is a label scanner and product discovery app for people with special diets. All our ingredient information and analysis is done in tandem with leading dietitian experts, many of whom are celiacs. As foodies ourselves, we believe everyone deserves “label peace of mind,” no matter where you live or how you eat.