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Being gluten-free can be So. Darn. Confusing.
There are a million ingredients in packaged foods that you have to decode, and there are tons of rumors about what may and may not be gluten-free. All of this can put even the most seasoned gluten-free eater in a tailspin.
In this article, I decode which ingredients and products are (or aren’t) gluten-free once and for all. Internet rumors and confusing ingredient labels be gone. We will find out once and for all the answer to the question, “Is it gluten-free?”
Decoding 20 Confusing Ingredients
I got your back when it comes to figuring out what’s safe, and what should be absolutely avoided. Let’s decode whether these 20 ingredients are gluten-free … or not:
(1) Is Maltodextrin Gluten-Free?
Maltodextrin is a food additive found in many processed foods. The word itself is confusing because it contains the word “malt,” which is typically associated with barley.
According to Beyond Celiac, maltodextrin is safe to consume on a gluten-free diet, even if derived from wheat. Maltodextrin is highly processed to the point that the gluten is removed.
That said, the vast majority of maltodextrin used in processed foods comes from corn or tapioca, not wheat.
As always, eating naturally gluten-free foods vs. highly processed foods is your best — and safest — option. If you see maltodextrin on a food label, take note that you’re eating a food-like substance vs. real food.
(2) Is Vinegar Gluten-Free?
Another ingredient that stumps the gluten-free diet club is vinegar. The key thing to note is that regular distilled vinegar is gluten-free. Wine and grape vinegar (distilled from grapes), and apple cider vinegar (distilled from apples) are also gluten-free.
According to the Gluten Free Dietician, 100 percent distilled vinegar is made from distilled alcohol and all “pure” distilled alcohol is gluten-free. She says this is true even if the vinegar is derived from wheat, barley or rye.
She explains that during distillation, “the liquid from fermented grain mash is boiled and the resulting vapor is captured and cooled. This causes the vapor to become liquid again. Because protein doesn’t vaporize, there are no proteins in the cooled liquid.”
However, if you’re using non-distilled vinegar, you must read labels carefully. If the non-distilled vinegar is made from wheat, barley or rye as its starting material, the vinegar is not gluten-free.
Also beware of flavored vinegars, particularly malt vinegars. Malt comes from barley and is not gluten-free.
(3) Is Modified Food Starch Gluten-Free?
Most modified food starch is made from corn or potato, however, it also can come from wheat.
Due to required FDA food labeling in the US, if modified food starch comes from wheat, the word “wheat” will be listed somewhere on the ingredient label or allergen disclosure statement. If you don’t see the statement, the modified food starch is free from gluten.
(4) Is Alcohol Gluten-Free?
You can ask 10 people this question and get 10 different answers. Even I’m confused by it. Let’s take a moment to distill the facts.
According to the University of Chicago School of Medicine, any distilled liquor is technically gluten-free even if distilled from a gluten-containing grain such as wheat, barley or rye.
Also, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the government agency that regulates liquor, says, “Alcohol beverages that are made from ingredients that do not contain gluten (such as wines fermented from grapes or other fruit and distilled spirits distilled from materials other than gluten-containing grains) may continue to make “gluten-free” claims in the same way allowed in the new FDA regulations for inherently gluten-free products.”
So does this mean it’s okay to drink any beer, wine or spirit?
Not so fast.
The Bureau also says that “gluten-free” labels on alcohol beverages made from gluten-containing grains are “misleading.” It adds, “Any product made from any gluten-containing grains may be labeled with a statement that the product was “Processed,” “Treated,” or “Crafted” to remove gluten if that claim is made together with a qualifying statement that warns the consumer that the gluten content of the product cannot be determined and that the product may contain gluten.”
- Nearly all distilled alcohol contains no gluten. The protein is removed during the processing of the liquor.
- Based on FDA guidelines, only products made from gluten-free grains and fruits (grapes) can be labeled “gluten-free.”
- Any flavoring added after the distillation process may be problematic if the flavoring contains gluten. Read labels carefully.
- Beer made from non-gluten grains is gluten-free and safe for consumption by someone on a gluten-free diet.
I personally err on the side of caution and only drink alcohol distilled for gluten-free grains. See my Gluten-Free Alcohol List for a complete list.
(5) Is Gluten-Removed Beer Gluten-Free?
As mentioned, the FDA says that any product made from gluten-containing grains must be labeled that the product was crafted to remove the gluten and may contain gluten. This is why we’re seeing “gluten-removed beer” pop up at liquor stores across the U.S.
OK, so the beer is crafted to remove the gluten, but is it gluten-free?
While the gluten ingredients are removed during processing, there is still a high risk of cross contamination during the manufacturing process. Furthermore, there are no available testing options to confirm the status of gluten in the gluten-removed beer either. Until the science becomes available, all gluten-removed beer should be avoided by anyone on a gluten-free diet.
(6) Is Sourdough Bread Gluten-Free?
Sourdough bread is another food item that stumps even the most experienced gluten-free eater. There are a lot of Internet rumors touting that even someone with celiac disease can consume sourdough bread.
Sourdough bread is made by the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast. During the fermentation process, the gluten is broken down to a safe level of consumption for those following a gluten-free diet.
Unfortunately, to find sourdough bread made with fully hydrolyzed wheat flour is non-existent today. Almost all bread found in bakeries and grocery stores are made with fast-acting chemicals and/or baker’s yeast leavening agents.
Plus, think of all the risks associated with eating something made from a gluten grain. How could you know that every bit of the flour used was fully and properly fermented? Seems much too risky to me – no thanks.
Read more about why these sourdough rumors exists and get a recipe for gluten-free sourdough bread in this article. You can purchase gluten-free sourdough bread from Bread Srsly as well – it’s made from 100 percent GF grains.
(7) Is Molasses Gluten-Free?
While most of us rarely bake with molasses, come Christmas-time, many of us pull this dark and sticky substance out from the deep crevices of our cabinets.
Molasses is made from refining either sugar cane or sugar beet juice into a syrupy sugar. The sugar crystals are extracted from the mixture, leaving behind a dark liquid, aka, molasses. Molasses is what gives brown sugar its defining look and taste.
Molasses also can be made from sorghum, a gluten-free grain. For all intents and purposes, pure molasses is gluten-free. Check labels for any red flag ingredients, of course.
(8) Is Brown Rice Syrup Gluten-Free?
You would think with a name like “brown rice syrup” gluten would not be an issue. But not so fast!
Brown rice syrup is made by fermenting brown rice with enzymes that disintegrate the starch. While the brown rice, itself, is gluten-free, the enzymes used in the processing of it may not.
Barley enzymes may be used during the fermentation process and are NOT gluten-free. However, fungal enzymes also are used and are gluten-free according to Gluten Free Living magazine.
If a product contains brown rice syrup and is marked “gluten-free,” then you know barley enzymes were not used. However, if the product is not labeled “gluten-free” and contains brown rice syrup, you should avoid it. Unlike wheat, barley is not an allergen required by law to be listed/disclosed on an ingredient label.
(9) Is Wheatgrass Gluten-Free?
Wheatgrass (and barleygrass) is technically gluten-free despite its name. Wheatgrass is extracted from the freshly sprouted first leaves of the wheat plant. Wheatgrass juice is extracted from these wheatgrass sprouts BEFORE the wheat seed begins to form. The wheat seed is where the protein (gluten) resides.
If you’re eating the grass (without the seed), than you’re consuming the gluten-free part of the plant. The same is true for barleygrass – the barleygrass is gluten-free, but the seed kernel, or endosperm, is not.
You are, however, trusting that the farmer growing wheatgrass, has a purely wheatgrass farm and that the farmer has been mindful of the harvesting and production process to ensure no seeds get into the final product.
If you have a wheat allergy, you should avoid wheatgrass regardless if the seed is present. Read more about this topic in my article, Is Wheatgrass Gluten-Free?
(10) Is Gelatin Gluten-Free
Gelatin sounds a lot like gluten and is often confused at first glance. Gelatin, however, is gluten-free. It is made from the hydrolysis of animal collagen and is used as a gelling agent in food products. Most notably, gelatin is found in Jello, puddings, marshmallows and gummies (including gummy vitamins).
Vegans should avoid gelatin, which is typically sourced from beef, pork or fish sources. However, gelatin is gluten-free and safe for someone following a gluten-free diet.
(11) Is Non-US Wheat Gluten-Free?
While wheat produced in different regions of the world (and even different regions of the U.S.) can vary in gluten content, at the end of the day, all wheat contains the gluten protein. On top of that, much of the wheat found in Europe is imported from America anyway.
So even if you’re rendezvousing in Paris, you can’t eat the wheat. Wheat is off-limits wherever you roam.
On top of that, you should note that celiac disease afflicts about one percent of the European population, the same rate in the U.S. Gluten is gluten wherever it is grown/found.
(12) Are Natural Flavors Gluten-Free?
Natural flavors is a catch-all ingredient found in many processed foods. It can come from animal or plant sources. For the most part, natural flavors are gluten-free unless noted otherwise on the ingredient label. To be safe, however, look for products labeled “gluten-free” when natural flavors are listed on the ingredient label.
(13) Are Mushrooms Gluten-Free?
The Internet rumor mill is buzzing with questions about whether or not mushrooms are gluten-free. I don’t know the exact answer to this question, but Verywell has an article on the topic that I’m going to use as my source.
The confusion about whether mushrooms are gluten-free stems from how mushrooms are grown. Did you know that mushroom spores are grown directly on gluten grains (rye, and occasionally wheat)? This can lead to cross contamination of the fungi with the gluten protein.
No one knows for sure how much residue gluten is left behind on the mushroom, but most experts say it’s far less than the 20 ppm gluten that the FDA requires for something to be labeled as gluten-free.
Is it gluten-free? Yes, but if you react after consuming mushrooms, or eat a lot of mushrooms and still have high biomarkers for celiac despite being on a gluten-free diet, consider eliminating mushrooms.
(14) Is MSG Gluten-Free?
Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is a flavor-enhancing food additive that gives food a more savory, desirable taste.
Various starches are used in making MSG, however, it rarely is sourced from wheat. To be safe, look for products that are labeled “gluten-free” when MSG is present or just avoid MSG altogether. The additive has been linked to a slew of adverse symptoms such as headaches nausea and weakness. You don’t need it in your life, no doubt.
(15) Is Blue Cheese Gluten-Free?
Blue cheese is a tricky one. The mold found in blue cheese is most likely grown on wheat, barley and rye spores so the cheese comes in contact with gluten.
The Canadian Celiac Association tested blue cheese grown on gluten spores and found it contained less than five ppm gluten (FDA requires products to contain less than 20 ppm to be labeled “gluten-free”). Read more about the tests here.
Personally I avoid blue cheese because I don’t like it, but it might be okay for you because it contains less than 20 ppm of gluten. As with mushrooms, if you react after eating it, it’s time to cut the cheese, so to speak.
(16) Are Seasonings Gluten-Free?
Fresh spices, like fresh basil, mint, garlic, etc., are 100 percent gluten-free. However, things get a little trickier when it comes to dried, packaged spices.
I tested 18 different brands of spices with my Nima Sensor and report the results here. I found that, in general, spices do not contain detectable amounts of gluten. However, my test is not scientifically valid and I only tested one spice from each brand.
The best way to ensure you get dried spices free from gluten is to look for spices marked gluten-free. Spicely brand spices are certified gluten-free as well and can be ordered online and found in select grocery stores.
Also, avoid buying spices that are processed on the same equipment as products that may contain wheat (gluten). Look for spices with single ingredients and no fillers. Read ingredient and allergen disclosure statements carefully for clues.
(17) Are Oats Gluten-Free?
A common question newbie gluten-free eaters ask is whether or not oats are gluten-free. Oats are naturally gluten-free, however, they are grown in rotation with wheat. Therefore the same fields are used to grow wheat and oats, and the same harvesting, storing and processing equipment are used for both too.
That said, you can purchase safe, gluten-free oats from reputable brands. Some brands use purity protocol oats, which are oats that are grown on dedicated gluten-free fields and processed using dedicated gluten-free equipment. Others optically sort their oats to remove any traces of gluten so only the oat grain is left.
I am personally OK eating oats that are not “purity protocol” oats. For example, I use Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free oats and they are not purity protocol, however, Bob’s has satisfactory processes in place to ensure the oats are safe for consumption.
In fact, Bob’s Red Mill says it works with farmers who understand the concern and need to keep grains separate, avoiding cross-contamination. The company tests every load of oats for gluten before it enters its dedicated gluten-free processing facility. They also test again during processing, and a third time as the oats are being packaged to be sent to store shelves.
Another question I get A LOT is about Cheerios as Cheerios are made with oats and are labeled “gluten-free.”
General Mills uses standard oats that are mechanically and optically sorted to remove wheat, which is okay for most people. Quaker also uses sorted oats in the production of its gluten-free oatmeal.
However, the gluten-free community has been suspicious of General Mills ever since its 2015 recall. After reports of people getting sick after eating the cereal, the FDA decided to test 36 boxes of Cheerios labeled “gluten-free” and found one sample contained twice the legal limit allowed in gluten-free labeled products. General Mills promptly recalled 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios as a result, and lost the trust of much of the gluten-free community at the same time.
Two years later, the Gluten Free Watchdog says General Mills’ testing protocols still do not go far enough to ensure the end product is gluten-free. You can read about those testing protocols on this website and decide for yourself.
For better or worse, Cheerios remains a product many in the celiac community will not support. That said, it is labeled “gluten-free” and therefore contains less than 20 ppm unless proven otherwise.
(18) Is Yeast Gluten-Free?
Most people associate yeast with bread and they don’t realize it’s gluten-free and safe to eat. In fact, you need yeast for making your own gluten-free bread or gluten-free pizza dough.
(19) Is Yeast Extract Gluten-Free?
Yeast extract, however, is not typically gluten-free. Yeast extract and autolyzed yeast extract are often made from spent brewer’s yeast. Spent brewers yeast is a byproduct of the brewing process and may contain wheat or other gluten containing grains.
Unless you know the source of yeast extract, or a product is labeled “gluten-free,” yeast extract should be avoided.
(20) Is Grain-Fed Steak Gluten-Free?
Have you ever wondered how the feed of the animal might impact whether the animal’s byproducts (eggs, milk) or flesh (meat) might be impacted?
You can feel better knowing that even if an animal was fed gluten grains, the byproducts or flesh are gluten-free and safe to eat when you’re following a gluten-free diet.
The animal converts the food proteins into animal proteins during digestion. The only way meat can contain gluten is if gluten is added during processing (i.e., gluten fillers are added to the final product).
Is It Gluten-Free?
No one said being gluten-free was easy. All sorts of information is passed around as truth, and what you hear today might change tomorrow.
I even realize that the information in this article may need to be updated at some point, as a lot of information and misinformation is abound.
I promise, however, that I will update this article with new information as it becomes available. For now, use this information to help you make educated decisions about the food you eat, and continue to research information that you feel you need to investigate further.
Remember, the best food is and will ALWAYS be naturally gluten-free food. Here’s my list of naturally gluten-free foods to load up on worry-free from gluten.
What did I miss? Leave a comment and let me know if other ingredients confuse you. I just may add new things to this list!