NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Finding Gluten Free on a Food Label

Finding Gluten Free on a Food Label


                Food labels come in all shapes and sizes. Some are crisp, easy to read, and provide all the information you need. Others are confusing, and leave you with more questions than they answer.

                When you follow a gluten-free diet, the most important part of a food label is the ingredients list usually found on the back or side of the package. In the ingredients list, food processors must accurately list the ingredients found in a food. But you won’t find the word “gluten.” Instead look for these words: wheat, rye, barley or malt. Oats on most labels are also off limits. The exception is “specialty” gluten-free oats in a food labeled gluten free.

                The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) guarantees that if food contains wheat in any form, you will see the word “wheat” on the label. It also means you no longer have to worry about ingredients like modified food starch or hydrolyzed vegetable protein. If any ingredient is made from wheat, the label will tell you.

                Be aware, but not alarmed, that FALCPA covers foods regulated by the FDA. This includes all packaged food except meat, eggs and poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Rye and barley are not covered by FALCPA. But rye is rarely, if ever, used in a food in a form other than flour or grain and would always appear in the ingredients list. It’s not commonly used to make other ingredients and does not go by other names. Barley, which is more common, is almost always reliably labeled as barley, barley malt or simply malt.                

                You might be surprised to find gluten in some odd places – licorice and soy sauce, for example — but it will definitely not be hidden.  And whether you have purchased the product once or a dozen times, check the label every time and especially if the label has changed in color, design or shape which is an indicator of a revised food product also.

                Frequently, you will find products that, based on a careful reading of the ingredients list, seem to be safe. But they are not labeled “gluten free.” Food companies can choose to use a gluten-free label or not. They are not required to do so by law. Some companies have always labeled their appropriate products as gluten free. But these days it seems more are doing so perhaps hoping to profit from a growing concern.

                Right now a gluten-free label means only that the item does not include any gluten-containing ingredients. The only “rule” is that labels have to be “truthful with no misleading information.” You might initially depend on the gluten-free label, but start using ingredient lists as your guide when you get more confident in your ability to read them.

                If you are looking for more certainty, you can choose products that have been “certified” as gluten free. Right now, two organizations — the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) and the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA) certify products that meet their gluten-free standards.

                To use a GIG seal, a food has to be tested and found to contain less than 10 parts per million of gluten. For each product certified, GIG auditors review ingredients and do an on-site inspection of the production facility. CSA’s seal can only be used on products that contain less than 5 ppm of gluten. In addition, CSA does not permit oats, even specialty gluten-free oats, in products they certify.

                The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness also has a symbol that appears on foods made by companies that agree to investigate ingredients, test products to 20 ppm and label them properly. The NFCA does not do the testing or inspect the facilities. The group is currently working on a certification seal similar to the one used by the other two groups.

                When you read labels, you will also run across cautionary statements about shared machinery or production facilities. Sometimes called “May Contain” statements, these are voluntary and are not regulated by the FDA. They will usually say either, “Made on equipment that also processes wheat,” or “Made in a facility that also processes wheat.” They can even show up on products with a gluten-free label.

                It is hard to know how to interpret these statements because some companies use them broadly without evaluating how much risk there really is. Foods made in shared facilities or on shared lines can sometimes be handled in ways that still prevent them from containing significant levels of gluten cross contamination, as testing by certification organizations has proven. And a company can be using shared lines or facilities and simply not say so on the label. On the other hand, some companies note on their labels that they use dedicated gluten-free equipment or facilities.

                Wheat and its derivatives are the most common ingredients eliminated in the celiac diet. Almost any product made from flour has wheat flour as a base. Obvious examples include breads, cakes, cookies, bagels, crackers, pasta and many cereals. Wheat flours and starches are also excellent thickeners and binders and are often found in sauces (including soy sauce), gravies, soups, cornbread mixes, dairy products like sour cream, cottage cheese and yogurt, and processed meats like sausage, hot dogs, lunch meats and broth injected poultry.

                There are many varieties and names for wheat including bulgur, couscous, dinkle, durum, einkorn, emmer, Farina®, fu, graham, kamut, seitan, semolina, and spelt. Other common wheat products include wheat berry, wheat germ, wheat germ oil, wheat grass (also called triga), wheat gluten, wheat nut and wheat starch. Common ingredients and additives made from wheat include edible starch, food starch and glue.

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