This post “The 20 Most Confusing Ingredients to Decode for Hidden Gluten” contains affiliate links. It was last updated April 1, 2020. Please see my disclosures.
Eating gluten free can be extremely confusing.
There are a so many ingredients inside the average packaged food item that you often need to do a little detective work before you can even take your first bite.
On top of that, there are many rumors about what may and may not be gluten free and therefore safe for you to eat. 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. I will help you answer the question, “Is that gluten free?” once and for all.
Decoding 20 Confusing Ingredients for Hidden Gluten
Let’s decode whether these 20 ingredients are gluten free … or not:
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.
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) Modified Food Starch
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.
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.
Even the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the government agency that regulates liquor, says that alcoholic beverages made from ingredients that do not contain gluten, such as wines fermented from grapes or spirits distilled from non-gluten containing grains, can be labeled “gluten free.”
However, an alcohol brand cannot use the label, “gluten-free” if it’s made from any gluten-containing grains even if the gluten has been removed from the final product. Such products must be labeled with a qualifying statement that the product was “processed,” “treated,” or “crafted” to remove gluten, warning the consumer that the product was made using gluten grains.
I personally err on the side of caution and only drink alcohol distilled from gluten-free grains. See my Gluten-Free Alcohol List for a complete list of safe and not-so-safe alcoholic beverages.
(5) Gluten-Removed Beer
As mentioned, the FDA says that any product made from gluten-containing grains must include a label that says the product was crafted to remove the gluten and therefore may still contain gluten.
Remember, even though the gluten ingredients are removed from the final product during processing, there is still a risk of cross contamination during the manufacturing process.
Furthermore, there is not a way to test the final product to confirm if the gluten was fully removed from every inch of the final product. Until the science becomes available, all gluten-removed beer should be avoided by anyone on a gluten-free diet.
(6) Sourdough Bread
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 yeast breaks down the gluten. This has lead some people to think that sourdough bread is gluten free.
Unfortunately, however, it’s near impossible to find sourdough bread where the gluten protein is undetectable. And almost all bread found in bakeries and grocery stores today are made with fast-acting chemicals and/or baker’s yeast, not a slow fermentation process.
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 exist and get a recipe for gluten-free sourdough bread in this article.
While most of us rarely bake with molasses anymore, come Christmas-time, some of you will pull this dark and sticky substance out from the deep crevices of your 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. This means, for all intents and purposes, pure molasses is gluten free. Check labels for any red flag ingredients, of course.
(8) Brown Rice Syrup
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 labeled “gluten free,” then you know barley enzymes were not used. However, if the product is not labeled “gluten free,” you might want to avoid it or do additional research. Unlike wheat, barley is not an allergen required by law to be listed/disclosed on an ingredient label, so you will likely have to contact the manufacturer for more information.
Wheatgrass is technically gluten free despite its name. Wheatgrass is extracted from the freshly sprouted first leaves of the wheat plant, and wheatgrass juice is extracted from those sprouts before the wheat seed begins to form. The wheat seed is where the protein – aka 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 barley grass – the barley grass is gluten free, but the seed kernel, or endosperm, is not.
Keep in mind, however, that you are trusting that the farmer growing wheatgrass has a purely wheatgrass farm, and that he 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.
Related Reading: Is Wheatgrass Gluten-Free?
Gelatin sounds a lot like gluten and is often confused at first glance. Gelatin, however, is gluten free, as it’s made from the hydrolysis of animal collagen. Gelatin is most commonly used as a gelling agent in food products, most notably in Jello, puddings, marshmallows and gummies (including gummy vitamins).
Vegans, however, should avoid gelatin, as it is typically sourced from beef, pork, or fish sources. That said, gelatin is gluten free and safe for someone following a gluten-free diet.
(11) Non-US Wheat
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.
This means that even if you’re rendezvousing in Paris, you can’t eat the wheat. Wheat is off-limits wherever you roam.
(12) Natural Flavors
Natural flavors is a catch-all ingredient found in many processed foods. It can come from animal or plant sources.
In the majority of products, 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.
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 gluten residue 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.
If you have a reaction 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 from your diet.
Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is a flavor-enhancing food additive that gives food a 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 because it has been linked to a slew of adverse symptoms such as headaches nausea and weakness. You don’t need MSG in your life, no doubt.
(15) Blue Cheese
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. Remember, the FDA requires products to contain less than 20 ppm in order 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 as it contains less than 20 ppm of gluten. That said, if you react after eating it, it might be time to cut the cheese, so to speak.
Fresh spices, like fresh basil, mint, garlic, etc., are 100 percent free from any gluten. 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.
Related Reading: 13 Things You Need to Know about the Nima Sensor
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, and contact manufacturers when it doubt.
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. Other companies mechanically or 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, I personally feel like Bob’s has satisfactory processes in place to ensure the oats are safe for consumption.
Related Reading: Are Bob’s Red Mill Oats Really Gluten Free?
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.
Related Reading: Is Oat Milk Gluten Free?
Most people associate yeast with bread so they may not 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) Yeast Extract
Yeast extract, unlike yeast, is not typically gluten free. Yeast extract and autolyzed yeast extract are often made from spent brewer’s yeast. Spent brewer’s 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,” you should avoid yeast extract.
(20) Grain-Fed Steak
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 would contain gluten is if gluten is added during processing, either via a filler or seasoning.
Is That Gluten-Free?
No one says eating gluten free is easy. There are so many myths, lies and untruths, so much so that it can be hard to know what to believe, and what to eat.
I hope the information in this article will help you make educated decisions about the food you eat, and encourages you to continue to research information 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, no detective work required.
Is there a product I missed that you want me to decode for hidden gluten? If so, please leave me a comment. I just may add new things to this list!