When I first went gluten-free, I’d spend hours online trying to figure out how to find gluten in food labels. Then I’d stand in the grocery store double and triple checking my favorite products to see if they were gluten free. Scouring over every ingredient on the nutrition label, I tried as best as I could to determine if my old favorite foods were safe.
Granted there were ingredients with names I could barely pronounce. Some were things I’d never seen before like maltodextrin, methylcellulose or hydrolyzed vegetable protein. As long as I didn’t see the words wheat, barley, rye or spelt, I thought I was safe.
Well, I’m here to tell you that the devil is in the details in regards to ingredient labels for two really important reasons. What’s unfortunate is that too many people like you and I who need to eat gluten free either don’t know or completely ignore these points and continue to eat hidden gluten.
If you’ve found yourself reading all of the ingredients on a food label because the product isn’t labeled gluten free, you’re committing one of the biggest cardinal sins of eating a gluten free diet. You are not a gluten detective (though you could argue that your gut is). Here’s why this is incredibly risky to do…
Reason #1: Processed ingredients can be made from a gluten-containing grain
In this day and age of processed food, ingredients used by the food industry can be made from a variety of ingredients. Those ingredients might be highly unintelligible, science-y gobbledygook to you, but that doesn’t mean that you should merely write them off as being safe. Any one of those ingredients may be a derivative of one of the gluten-bearing grains (wheat, barley, rye) and you’d never know that gluten was hiding in it.
Heck, I had no clue in the beginning that something like hydrolyzed vegetable protein had gluten in it (so watch out for it in both food and body care products). How would you even guess that?
People ask me all of the time for lists containing names of every ingredient gluten could be hiding behind. My response is “Are you really going to memorize everything on that list (because the previous list I saw was very VERY long)? Or will you carry it with you and spend hours every grocery trip trying to decipher lengthy ingredient labels?”
Even if you had an eidetic memory (meaning you had a real life superpower to recall pretty much anything you’ve previously seen or read) or had an app that allowed you to search ingredients to tell you if they’re safe (I’m not sure that one exists), you’d still be at a huge disadvantage. The reality is that the food industry is always changing (as do product formulations) in how it produces food (and their respective ingredients).
My point here is that gluten can hide in too many ingredients making this a futile and pointless waste of your precious time and energy. While you certainly should know how to read food labels (you can learn how to do that HERE), unless that product is marked gluten free, you shouldn’t rely on ingredient lists alone to help you determine if something is safe to eat.
Reason #2: Cross contamination is a huge problem you shouldn’t ignore
The second reason I dislike most articles (and blogs) about how to find gluten in food labels is that most authors and bloggers have no idea how the food industry works. I didn’t at first either until several of my friends started food companies and I quickly learned from them that our food supply (and food production) is loaded with gluten. This causes contamination of other gluten free ingredients and food products that should be gluten free (but aren’t).
Take the eye-opening study published in 2010 looking at naturally gluten free grains and the incidence of gluten found within samples of them at levels that exceed the FDA’s limit of 20ppm (food must test under 20ppm in order to be labeled as gluten free). 32% of the samples tests were found to be contaminated with gluten. This means they couldn’t be labeled as gluten-free.
Furthermore, how raw naturally gluten free ingredients are harvested, stored and processed can cause contamination.
This explains why oats that are certified gluten free aren’t safe for us to eat (if you don’t know why, READ THIS). Or why you can’t by naturally gluten free foods like rice or beans from bulk bins or packaged in containers not marked gluten free.
Food companies wanting to label a product gluten free must first determine that the raw ingredients are gluten free. Once they’ve acquired them, they have to make sure that the storage of said ingredients isn’t compromised. Food co-packers have to go to varying lengths to ensure that contamination doesn’t happen so that hopefully the final batches will safely test below 20ppm. Even air flow is taken into account because flour/debris containing gluten can travel through air and contaminate other ingredients in the facility.
Then the equipment that’s used to produce your favorite food products must be maintained to a standard that also won’t contaminate the final product beyond the 20ppm threshold.
My point here is that there’s a lot of unseen steps and hands through which these naturally gluten free ingredients pass that you, the consumer, can’t know simply by reading a label. Sure all of the ingredients on the label could check out, but it doesn’t mean that the final product is safe unless the company has taken intentional steps to to keep it as such.
How to Find Gluten in Food Labels That Actually Works
Now that we’ve established that reading the ingredients isn’t a good idea, let’s talk about how to find gluten in food labels that actually works and is typically quite fast.
First, look for a certified gluten free label or at least somewhere that the products is clearly marked gluten free. (CLICK HERE to see what certified labels look like if you’re unsure.)
Next I’d suggest that you check out the ingredients for anything that might be a red flag. I personally am uncomfortable when I find a clearly marked gluten free product with oats in them that aren’t also marked gluten free. Typically I’ll call the company to verify that they’ve used gluten free oats if I cannot locate that information on their website.
Since so many people are sensitive or allergic to other foods like dairy or soy, it’s wise to scan the ingredients and even check to see if there’s an allergen warning. The top 8 allergens are required by law (in the US) to be boldly labeled in the ingredients list (ie. “Allergens: SOY”). If you happen to see wheat listed as an allergen (it’s one of the 8), I’d recommend calling the company immediately to question the product. It is possible for a derivative of wheat such as wheat starch to appear in a gluten free product (though I’ve never seen one with wheat starch in it) if the starch has had enough gluten removed from it to measure under 20ppm when tested.
Thanks to smart phones and other portable mobile devices, you can try to google the brand and specific product to see if it the company can provide you with the allergen and gluten information that you need via their website. I would not recommend going off the word of a blog because author is not an official employee of the company. It’s also possible that the company has changed the product (possibly making it no longer gluten free) since the blog post was written.
But if you can’t find anything online, then call the number listed on the product to speak directly with the company and ask them the gluten free status of the product as well as any questions regarding processing. For example — is this processed on the same equipment as other products that contain gluten? If so, are you thoroughly cleaning the equipment before processing this particular product and testing to make sure it’s gluten free?
Lastly, make sure that loose ingredients you purchase like spices, naturally gluten free grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, etc. are marked gluten free or that you can ascertain from the company how they are sourced and produced. I’ve found bags of dried black beans at my local grocery that were marked with a warning on the back that stated that the product may contain wheat. If you’re finding it a challenge to buy goods locally that are safe, online retailers like Amazon (or directly from a company’s store) might be a better (and safer) way to go.
NEED MORE HELP?
If you feel like you’re at your wits’ end and fed up knowing what to eat… Or you feel like food is your enemy now that you’ve gone gluten-free and you’re feeling deeply overwhelmed with the process of ridding your life of gluten… I have a really neat opportunity for you so keep on reading!
I want to chat with you!!! I’m hosting a special FREE webinar where I’m going to talk about the process and myths of going gluten-free as well as how I (and my clients) have gotten to a place of feeling like the lifestyle and diet are a piece of gluten-free cake. If you’ve been GF for less than 2 years, are still struggling to “stay on the wagon,” or haven’t even started going GF yet… this is for you.
To register for the Kick Gluten for Good Q&A…
Think of it like you and I sit down for a cup or tea (or coffee)… you can pick my brain, ask me your burning questions and I’m going to dish on what’s worked for me and my clients. Plus I’ll have a special surprise for you at the end! BUT please be aware that I will not record this event so if you miss it, then you’ve missed out.
I’ve never done this before and I don’t know if I’ll offer something like this again due to time constraints (school starts next week)… so make sure to register for this FREE event. See you there!