A Lesson In Reading Food Labels

Understanding The Law The 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act prompted the FDA to define the term “gluten-free” with regard to labeling. By 2006, foods were permitted to use the term, and the final rule was issued in 2008. From that date, any food labeled “gluten-free” was not allowed to contain any “prohibited grains,” which includes wheat, barley, rye, or any grain hybridized from these grains. Labeling itself is voluntary, but foods so labeled are required to meet the guidelines. As comprehensive as the law seems, there are still some things to look out for.


Foods labeled “gluten-free” are still allowed to contain gluten in concentrations of 20 parts per million or less. Although this technically makes the food a gluten-containing food, 20 parts per million is considered a “safe” level of gluten that does not produce a reaction in most people. Dietitian Tricia Thompson notes that eating 10 ounces of grains that meet the 20 parts per million rule would supply only 5.7 milligrams of gluten. According to a 2007 study in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” an intake of up to 10 milligrams of gluten per day doesn’t seem to affect celiac sufferers, although 50 milligrams per day may. If you wish to avoid gluten entirely, you may wish to stick to foods that do not naturally contain gluten.


Dairy foods, fruits, vegetables, juices, lentils, nuts, fresh fish and seafood and non-gluten grains do not naturally contain gluten, so are safe for those on a gluten-free diet. The FDA allows these foods to be labeled “gluten-free,” but the labels must contain language explaining that foods of that type are always gluten-free. Foods that are naturally gluten-free but have been treated or processed with gluten may not use the gluten-free language. For example, fruits and vegetables polished with gluten-containing wax cannot be labeled “gluten-free.”


Oats inhabit a gray area — they are not considered “prohibited grains,” but they are not necessarily allowed to carry the gluten-free label either. The FDA concluded that most celiac sufferers can tolerate some oats, and there is no reason to exclude them from the diet. Some oats can contain gluten, however, so the 20 parts per million rule applies. The only alcoholic beverages covered under the labeling rule are wine and cider that contain less than seven percent alcohol, and beer made from a barley substitute — these beverages may carry the “gluten-free” label as long as they meet the 20 parts per million rule. All other alcoholic beverages are regulated by a different agency and are not allowed to make health claims of any kind on the label. This means that these beverages may or may not contain gluten, but the label cannot mention it.


There are alot of sources of gluten in your diet and you don’t even realize it!  Here are some “hidden” culprits to the gluten in your diet. Modified Food Starch Modified food starch may be used to thicken commercial goods and is found in many prepackaged foods, according to Columbia University. Food starch may be made from corn, tapioca, potato, wheat or a combination of these. Food starch made from wheat contains gluten. Product labels should indicate what type of modified food starch is used in the product. Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, HVP, is used as a flavor enhancer in many commercially prepared foods like hot dogs, chips and baked snacks. Foods such as corn, soy or wheat are boiled in hydrochloric acid and then neutralized with sodium chloride to produce hydrolyzed vegetable protein. HVPs made with wheat contain gluten and should not be consumed as part of a gluten-free diet. Flavor Additives Flavorings added to foods may contain gluten if wheat flour was used during processing. Common flavor additives containing gluten include caramel and butterscotch. Prepared foods such as frozen dinners, processed meat products, soups and stews may contain bouillon flavoring. Bouillon may be made with wheat flour as a thickener and may contain gluten. Rice syrups may also be added to prepared foods as a flavor additive. Brown rice syrup, rice malt and rice syrup may be processed with wheat, states the University of Chicago, and should be avoided if you are on a gluten-free diet. Malt Malt additives may be used in a variety of products, like malted milk, ice cream and candy. Malt is derived from barley, a grain that contains gluten. Malt may be listed on product packaging as malt flavoring, malt syrup or malt extract, states the Gluten Free Casein Free Diet website. Some malts are made from corn and do not contain gluten. Verify with the product manufacturer whether malt is made from barley or corn if the ingredients are not clearly labeled.


If you’re gluten free and dairy free, use the list that Gluten Free Casein Free Diet website has.


  • Look for the words “gluten free.” Look on the front of the packaging and the side panels. It is not always in the same place from product to product. If you see the words “gluten free,” you know you are in the clear.
  • Watch out for the words “wheat free.” Wheat free does not mean gluten free. Oats are often used in place of the wheat when this claim is made.
  • Check the list of allergens. At the end of the ingredients list, many manufacturers list common allergens included in the product. If you see wheat listed, you know the food contains gluten. If the product doesn’t list wheat, you still need to check the ingredients for gluten-containing products but it helps you narrow down what you are looking for.
  • Learn about all the ingredients that could possibly contain gluten. While this is not a comprehensive list, this will help you get started. Wheat, wheat starch, barley and oats are pretty obvious sources of gluten. Others below may be less so.
  • Hydrolyzed corn, soy or vegetable protein All of these have the potential of containing gluten. Wheat is often used in the process of making these proteins (because gluten is a protein). Of these, hydrolyzed vegetable protein is most likely to have gluten in it.
  • Soy sauce Soy sauce is made with wheat.
  • Malt Malt is sometimes also called barley malt. All malt is made from barley even if it is called “rice malt.”
  • (Modified) food starch Not all food starch contains gluten but, unless you know what kind of starch it is, i.e. corn starch or wheat starch, it is best to avoid it.
  • Check labels continuously. Even if you have bought a product before, it is a good idea to read the label periodically to check if the ingredients have changed. Companies change ingredients often and without warning.
  • Don’t be fooled. Some foods with gluten are easy to spot like breads, pastas and pastries. Others can be harder to identify. Here are a few to look out for: •Dairy Sometimes starch fillers are added to yogurt and soft cheeses.
  • Most cereals contain some form of gluten, for example, cornflakes contain malt.
  • Alcoholic beverages Beer is made with hops, a barley relative. Whiskey and gin are made from wheat.
  • Canned soups, stews, and prepackaged meals Look for starch fillers, soy sauce, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and pasta.



Next to buying certified products, the best safeguard you can take remains reading food labels. Because companies can reformulate products or packaging at any time, reading ingredient labels every time is absolutely paramount for gluten-free consumers. If you’re unsure about an ingredient, contact the manufacturer directly. If you’re unsure about the meaning of a gluten-free claim, ask the manufacturer questions like these: •Is the product made in a dedicated gluten-free facility? •If the product is made in a shared facility (one that produces both gluten-containing and gluten-free foods), is the product made on dedicated equipment? •What steps does the manufacturer take to prevent cross contamination? •Does the manufacturer regularly test the final product for gluten? If so, does the product consistently fall below 20 ppm?   Sources: Living Without: A Closer Look At Food Labeling Live Strong:  Additives Containing Gluten How To Do Things: Find Gluten Free Foods, How To Read A Label