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Examining Food Labels for Hidden Gluten

When you or a family member has a problem with gluten, you need to know how to examine food ingredient labels to find hidden gluten. You may even find yourself calling manufacturers to verify ingredients in their foods.

Some hidden sources of gluten include proteins made with spelt, kamut, triticale, farro, and durum. All these names are just varieties of wheat; tasty ones, but wheat nonetheless. Don’t fall for the wheat-free claims that occasionally appear on products made from these grains.

Understanding label jargon

Every food in the supermarket that contains more than one ingredient must have a label that lists all the ingredients, along with nutrition information and some specific warnings and health claims. These labels are just one line of defense against gluten. You may need to do some research before you can confidently buy and eat products that are safe for you.

If only avoiding gluten was as easy as simply avoiding wheat pasta, breads, and flour! Gluten can hide in foods as diverse as salad dressing and low-fat sour cream. (Gluten can even be present in non-food items.)

The government is helping you out a bit with label warnings. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) took effect in 2006. More than 160 foods are identified as allergens, but 90 percent of all food allergies are caused by just eight of them. The FALCPA requires that any product that contains one of the eight major allergenic foods clearly list that allergen on the label. Wheat is one of the eight allergens.

Coming soon: A gluten-free label

Manufacturers will soon be able to put an FDA-sanctioned, gluten-free label on products that have tested gluten-free in an accredited lab, using the ELISA-based testing method. Right now, companies can add a gluten-free label to any product, but that claim isn’t certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Certification is currently granted by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), part of the Gluten Intolerance Group. You can trust products with labels certified by this organization.

The proposed standard for the amount of gluten in a product labeled gluten-free is 20 parts per million (ppm). This number was set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the World Health Organization. Some companies and advocates want to see a limit of less than 10 ppm gluten. The most accurate test can detect 5 ppm at this time.

Part of the controversy continues to rage because the evaluation is based on the amount of gluten per serving. If you eat several products containing small amounts of gluten over the course of a day, each one below 20 ppm, you can easily rise above the level of gluten that causes damage and you may experience painful symptoms.

These limits may be too high for many people who have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant. Here’s the lesson in all this: “Gluten-free” doesn’t mean “no gluten at all.” There’s simply no way to guarantee zero gluten in any one product, unless you buy an apple or lemon that hasn’t been coated with a wax or solution that contains gluten. Or unless you grow your own food!

Cross-contamination issues

Manufacturers don’t have to mention possible cross-contamination, which is a big issue when dealing with gluten. If a manufacturer processes soy flour in the same plant that it processes wheat flour, cross-contamination can easily occur.

On products made with flour or other grains, look for this statement on the label: “Processed in a dedicated mill.” A dedicated mill specifically processes only one particular grain.

Rye and barley

Rye and barley, two grains that contain gluten, aren’t included in label regulations because they aren’t major allergens. Rye is fairly easy to avoid because it’s usually only listed as “rye” on labels, but barley can hide behind the generic term “natural flavors” and many others. If you see vague or generic terms on a product label, contact the manufacturer to find out exactly what ingredients are in that food.

Barley malt, especially, is in many commercially prepared products. That ingredient is the reason Rice Krispies cereal isn’t gluten-free. But there is hope! Many manufacturers are realizing that simple changes will let them market their products as gluten-free. What it really comes down to is this: Read every label, every single time, before you buy.

Avoiding suspect ingredients

Dozens of ingredients contain gluten. Some are obvious, like “bran” and “graham,” but others are vague and nonspecific. Without some special knowledge, few people would know that “emulsifiers” can mean that gluten lurks in that product or that “vegetable protein” is a flashing red alarm for those who must avoid wheat.

You have to learn some technical terms that are used to describe gluten or that gluten can hide behind and look for them on every product you consider purchasing.

Here are just a few of the ingredients to look for on food products when you need to avoid gluten. Don’t buy products with these terms:

  • Bran (rice and corn bran are safe)

  • Coloring

  • Couscous

  • Graham

  • Hydrolyzed

  • Kamut

  • Malt (corn malt is safe)

  • Natural flavors

  • Soy sauce (unless specifically labeled wheat-free)

  • Spelt

  • Starch

  • Vegetable protein

The following baking products may contain gluten. Read the label carefully before you buy them, and if any terms aren’t clearly defined and identified, contact the manufacturer and find out whether the product is gluten-free. Manufacturers must list contact information on all their products.

  • Cocoa and chocolate products

  • Commercial dairy products

  • Malted drinks and powders

  • Marzipan

  • Packaged bread mixes

  • Packaged cake mixes

  • Packaged frosting mixes

  • Pastry fillings

  • Pie fillings

  • Seasoning mixes

  • Some baking powders

  • Some cake decorating products like sprinkles

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