When you first go on a gluten free (GF) diet, reading labels to figure out if a product is gluten free or not can be a challenging task. Unfortunately, gluten is not an “ingredient” that is listed on a label. It is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Making things even more complicated, wheat, rye and barley can be found in strange places and may not be listed as an ingredient either, but still be in the product. Here are a few tips for figuring it all out:
Fortunately, food label standards are improving all the time. The world seems to be more sensitive to the major foods that cause allergies and are listing them with more regularity on labels. Wheat is one of the more common allergens listed on labels, making a huge part of gluten free shopping easier. Unfortunately, rye and barley are not thought of as common allergens, so they are not routinely mentioned on labels. Remember, just because a product is “wheat free” does not make it “gluten free”!
When reading a label, I first go right to the bottom of the list of ingredients and look for an emboldened warning that often starts with “May contain…” or “Warning: contains…” and look for “wheat”. This is where the most common allergens are listed such as nuts, dairy, wheat, etc. If you find wheat here, then you know immediately this item is not gluten free.
If it says it “may contain traces of wheat” or it “is produced in a factory that produces wheat”, you have to decide based on your own medical needs if you are willing to take that risk or not. Our family has personally never had a reaction to a product that says this and we do not forgo a product just because of this type of warning. You have to make this decision based on how sensitive you are and what your doctor’s advice is.
Once I’ve checked and a product does not show a warning for wheat at the end of the ingredients, I go to the beginning of the ingredients and start scanning the label for items that send up red flags for possible gluten. The biggest offender I often find is “MALT”. Malt comes from barley and is used in many different forms in many different foods. It is the biggest reason why most rice and corn cereals are not gluten free. It is also commonly found in root beer, vinegar and granola bars.
I also look for items in the list that I know are most likely made with gluten, but the ingredients to that item are not listed in parenthesis after it. Bread crumbs for example would most likely contain gluten and if listed as an ingredient should look something like this: bread crumbs (wheat flour, salt, eggs, yeast…), but there are times when the ingredients are not listed in parenthesis and you must ‘read between the lines’ for yourself and assume that the breadcrumbs probably contain gluten. A place where this may happen is with ice creams. It may list ‘cookie crumbs’ as an ingredient, but not list what the cookies are made of. You must then assume that the cookies are made with standard flour and most likely contain gluten, so you rule out this product.
There are other places gluten can be hidden in a product, and with a bit of research online and by reading a book or two, you will become an expert on label reading and deciphering whether or not a product is safe to eat. The best way to be sure if it is not clear by reading the label, is to call the manufacturer and ask. In the meantime, the information above will cover the bulk of what you need to know to get started on your path to a gluten free lifestyle.