Gluten-Free Myths That Still Persist

If you’ve been eating gluten-free for many years, you may feel very confident in your ability to avoid foods that make you sick. Still, you may hear an occasional piece of information that makes you question what you know. It might be from a well-meaning friend or family member, or something you see on social media. If you dig further, you might get more confused as you sift through blog comments and online forums. Despite all the research around the gluten-free diet over the last few years, significant misinformation remains. Let’s set the record straight on some of the most popular myths that persist.

Manufacturers “hide” gluten under natural flavorings or ingredients such as caramel coloring.  

“Consumers should not worry about the ingredient ‘natural flavoring’ in a labeled gluten-free food,” said Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, founder of the independent testing organization Gluten Free Watchdog, LLC. Thompson said that natural flavoring can be derived from wheat, but in FDA-regulated foods, this wheat would have to be declared in the ingredients list or “Contains” statement. “If natural flavoring contains barley protein or rye, these might not be declared in the ingredients list,” she said. “That said, flavoring containing barley protein will most likely be declared in the ingredients list as malt flavoring and malt extract.”

While USDA-regulated foods do not fall under the labeling jurisdiction of the FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule, the USDA does say ingredients containing protein, such as gluten, can’t be included under the name “flavoring,” noted Thompson. “They must be declared in the ingredients list by their common or usual name, such as malt.”

The fear of hidden gluten in caramel coloring also persists, but it shouldn’t, said Thompson. Caramel coloring is the world’s most widely used food colorant, and the myth that it contains gluten likely stems from the fact that it can be made from wheat, but this is rare. Just like natural flavorings, however, if caramel coloring was derived from wheat, it would be noted in the ingredients list or “Contains” statement. In the U.S., however, most caramel coloring is derived from corn. According to the website for Sethness Caramel Color, a worldwide caramel coloring manufacturer, its coloring is made from corn syrup or sugar and is gluten free.  

Even if the starting material was wheat, experts agree that the final product would be unlikely to contain gluten because it is so highly processed. This led the European Union to permanently exclude caramel coloring, as well as maltodextrin and wheat-based glucose syrup, from allergen labeling.

Sourdough bread is safe for people with celiac disease.

“The belief that sourdough wheat breads that undergo long fermentations are safe for people with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders stems in part from a misread of studies on wheat flour hydrolyzed under laboratory conditions,” said Thompson. “One such study found that wheat flour fermented with sourdough lactobacilli reduced the intact gluten content of wheat flour to under 2,500 parts per million.”

This is compared to wheat flour that comes in at approximately 100,000 parts per million of gluten. “In that same study, wheat flour fermented with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases decreased the intact gluten content to under 10 parts per million.”

Unfortunately, Thompson said, this has led some artisanal bakers to claim and advertise that their sourdough bread is safe for consumption by people with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders. “Sourdough wheat bread made in an artisanal bakery is not using hydrolyzed wheat flour to make their bread,” she said. “Commercially available products that were not produced in a lab are testing upwards of 100,000 parts per million gluten.”

It is necessary to look for a gluten-free label on ALL foods that you eat.

While the FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule states that manufacturers may choose to use a gluten-free label on foods or beverages such as grapefruit or bottled water, it does not mean you need to limit yourself to only foods labeled gluten free. Other examples of naturally gluten-free foods that do not need a gluten-free label include fresh fruits and vegetables; canned or frozen fruits and vegetables without sauces; plain meats, pork, fish or poultry (without broth); plain dairy products; and beverages such as water, soda or fruit juice.

The only exception to the naturally gluten-free status are grains and lentils, said Thompson. “Naturally gluten-free grains and products made from them should be labeled gluten free,” she said. “There is simply too great a chance for cross-contact with wheat or barley to take the chance on grains or flours not labeled gluten-free.” Thompson also advises that whenever possible, lentils should be labeled gluten-free. This, too, is because of cross-contact concerns.

Busted: Other myths that just won’t go away

Strawberries might contain gluten if they are exposed to straw in the fields.

“I have been in the strawberry industry for more than 25 years and never heard this myth,” said Kevin Schooley, executive director of the North American Strawberry Growers Association. “Straw does not store gluten, and any dust that might be on straw from harvesting the grain would be washed away by rain or other precipitation. Most straw is used to protect berries over winter, so there would be lots of opportunities for any possible minute quantity to be washed off. The majority of strawberries likely never even come in contact with the straw.”

Envelope glue contains wheat/gluten.

According to the Envelope Manufacturers Association’s website, “remoistenable adhesives are derived from cornstarch and do not contain wheat or rye gluten.” The U.S. Postal Service sells only adhesive postage now, so you don’t even have to lick the stamp.

Foods labeled gluten free still contain significant amounts of gluten.

The FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule allowing < 20 ppm gluten in foods labeled gluten-free does not mean that the vast majority of foods contain anywhere close to that amount. “Ninety-six percent of foods tested through Gluten Free Watchdog test below 20 parts per million of gluten,” said Thompson, “while 87 percent of those tested below 5 ppm.”

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) contains gluten.

Some people complain of physical symptoms such as nausea or headaches, after eating foods that contain MSG; however, this is not a reaction to gluten. Interestingly, MSG used to be derived from wheat gluten, but this has not been the case since the 1960s. Now, it’s made from the fermentation of certain sugars and starches, such as beet sugar, sugar cane, tapioca starch and cornstarch. Rest assured that on the off chance it was made from wheat, it would be required to be on the food label of an FDA-regulated product, either in the ingredients list or “Contains” statement.

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