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Reading labels - what to look out for
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Reading labels - what to look out for

There is great controversy over labeling and what is acceptable and what is necessary to avoid when reading commercial food labels.  There is also a lot of misinformation in books available and on the web.  I have been devoting research to this subject ever since I was first diagnosed with celiac disease.  I can't claim I have all the answers - yet - but I am making it a mission. 

The FDA has tightened their restrictions on labeling in 2009 and the necessity to list wheat as an ingredient has become a requirement on most labels.  The absence of wheat on a label does not mean a food is gluten free.

There are a few items that need to be taken into consideration:

  • FDA labeling only applies to items manufactured in the US.

  • There are levels of gluten allowed in "gluten free" items.

  • The labeling restrictions do not apply to food items that do not include (or never included) wheat type and gluten ingredients.  What this means is that some foods without the gluten free label may include less gluten than an item marked gluten free.

  • The only gluten ingredient required by law to be included on a label is wheat.  This means that other critical ingredients like Barley, Rye and Oats do not need to be on a label.

Confusing right?  No kidding.  If you are a person with an allergy to gluten or just avoiding wheat products this might not be as critical as it is to a person living as a celiac.  I have listed the ingredients to avoid when reading labels.  Where there is controversy I have tried to explain the controversy and then I leave it up to you to make an educated decision on whether to eat that food or not.  It is a personal call in some cases (like carmel coloring.) My explanation of ingredients is taken from the FDA website.  It is as close to the real answer as I can get.

Ingredients that signify gluten in a product:
Wheat
Rye
Oats
Barley
Bulgur
Spelt
Kamut
Flour (wheat, rye, barley oat)
Malt
Barley malt
Malt vinegar
Soy Sauce (most soy sauce contains wheat)
Teriyaki sauce (contains soy sauce)
Starch (wheat)
Gluten (except corn gluten)
Brewer's yeast (unless listed on dietary food supplements)
Hydrolyzed wheat protein (vegetable, soy and plant protein are safe)
Triticale
Wheat germ
Wheat bran
Graham flour
Durum flour
Oat bran
Farina
Couscous
Fu (dried wheat gluten)
Gliadin (protein found in wheat gluten)
Seitan (often used in "fake" meat products)
Dinkle
Wheat based semolina
Semolina
Einkorn
Emmer
Farro
Dextrin
Wheat maltodextrin (sometimes listed as maltodextrin (wheat)
Brown rice syrup (often contains barley malt)

The Controversial Ingredients:

Modified Food Starch:
may be wheat starch although most often corn.

Carmel Coloring:
FDA permits the use of malt syrup to make carmel color and does not require this to be on the label.  Although most always corn syrup there is no real way to tell. Meat products that use carmel coloring seem the most in question.  You decide what works for you.

This list is a handy guide for food shopping.  You can also see an extended food and ingredient list at www.celiac.com for both safe and unsafe food items.

Another thing to look out for; manufacturing labels.  If a label says PACKAGED IN A FACILITY THAT ALSO PROCESSES WHEAT PRODUCTS I may consider buying it depending on the food since it probably didn't touch the wheat products.  If a label says MANUFACTURED ON EQUIPMENT SHARED WITH WHEAT I leave it on the shelf.  It's not worth it!

Certain items like ice cream and chocolate are iffy.  Liquids don't often remain on a belt or in a mixer so they are less likely to hold traces of gluten - as a rule - but that is just my opinion.

You do need to check the manufacturer and check their reputation before making your final decision.  There are a few great manufacturers (like Amy's foods) that make both GF and gluten foods that are very careful about their practices and can be trusted.  In the end you need to trust your gut (no pun intended) and decide what you can, and can't live with.