Confused if yeast extract is gluten-free? How about maltodextrin? Cheerios? In this article, I’ll share 20+ confusing ingredients that may – or may not – contain hidden gluten. This post contains affiliate links. It was last updated July 2021. Please see my disclosures.
Eating gluten-free can be extremely confusing.
There are 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 20+ confusing ingredients and products and help you decode if they are (or aren’t) gluten-free.
Internet rumors and confusing ingredient labels are gone. I will help you answer the question, “Is that gluten-free?” once and for all.
(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 Yeast Gluten Free?
(3) Is Yeast Extract Gluten Free?
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.
(4) 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 (albeit not necessarily wheat 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 the labels carefully. If the non-distilled vinegar is made from wheat, barley, or rye as its starting material, the vinegar is not gluten-free.
(5) 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.
(6) 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, and 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.
(7) Is Gluten-Removed Beer Gluten Free?
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 no 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.
(8) 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 yeast breaks down the gluten. This has led 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 is 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.
(9) Is Molasses Gluten Free?
While most of us rarely bake with molasses, come Christmas time, some of you will pull this dark and sticky substance out from the deep crevices of your pantry.
Molasses is made from refining either sugar cane or sugar beet juice into 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. You can read more about molasses and what brands are – and aren’t – gluten-free in this article.
I’ve got a chewy gluten-free molasses cookie for you to try as well.
(10) 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 brown rice, itself, is gluten-free, the enzymes used in the processing 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.
(11) Is Wheatgrass Gluten Free?
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), then 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 pure 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 of if the seed is present. Also, people with non-celiac wheat sensitivity may be reacting to other components of wheat, not just gluten, and should avoid products labeled gluten-free but that are not wheat free.
You can read more about this topic in my article, “Is Wheatgrass Gluten Free?”
(12) Is Gelatin 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.
(13) Is It Safe to Eat European 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 gluten protein. On top of that, a lot of the wheat found in Europe is imported from America.
Read my article, Is European Wheat More Tolerable than U.S. Wheat? to better understand why people find they can tolerate wheat in Europe vs. home in the U.S.
(14) Are Natural Flavors Gluten Free?
Natural flavor 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.
(15) 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 I have researched the topic in depth in my article, Are Mushrooms Gluten Free?
The confusion about whether mushrooms are gluten-free stems from how mushrooms are grown. Did you know that mushroom spores may be grown on gluten grains?
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.
(16) Is MSG Gluten Free?
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’s rarely 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.
(17) Does Blue Cheese Contain Gluten?
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.
(18) Do Dried Seasonings Contain Gluten?
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 dry, packaged spices.
The best way to ensure you get dried spices free from gluten is to look for spices marked gluten-free. Spicely brand spices, for example, 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 in doubt.
(19) Do Oats Contain Gluten?
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 encourage you to read my article, Are Oats Gluten Free? Unpacking Confusing and Contradictory Information, for a more detailed response.
I personally eat oats that are not “purity protocol” oats. For example, I use Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free oats, and they are not purity protocol oats; however, Bob’s has satisfactory processes in place to ensure the oats are safe for the gluten-free community to consume.
(20) Are Cheerios Gluten Free?
Another question I get a lot is, “Are Cheerios gluten-free?” and why are Cheerios so controversial if they’re clearly labeled “gluten-free”?
Cheerios are gluten-free. That said, General Mills has come under some fire for its practices, and that is why many people with celiac disease avoid eating this popular breakfast cereal.
For starters, it’s important to understand that Cheerios uses standard oats that are mechanically and optically sorted and scrubbed to remove wheat, which is totally fine and safe for gluten-free people to consume. Even Bob’s Red Mill and Quaker Oats use sorted oats in the production of their gluten-free oat and oatmeal products.
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 contains less than 20 ppm unless proven otherwise, and many people in the community eat it safely and without issue.
(21) Does Grain-Fed Steak Contain Gluten?
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.
(22) Is Wheat Starch Gluten Free?
Wheat starch is gluten-free, as the protein (gluten) is removed from the starch, and only the starch is used (not the protein). For all intents and purposes, it’s safe to consume wheat starch when following a gluten-free diet unless you have non-celiac wheat sensitivity, then you may react to other components of wheat, not just gluten. Read more about this confusing topic in my article, Wheat Free vs. Gluten Free – What’s the Difference?
I made an authentic pizza crust using a flour blend that contained gluten-free wheat starch… and the pizza turned out amazing!
(23) Is Coffee Gluten Free?
Several people have asked me about coffee, and I want to assure you that, yes, for the most part, coffee is gluten-free. Any rumors you’ve heard about coffee beans being coated in wheat are just rumors.
I go into greater detail on this topic, as well as reveal how four popular coffee brands fared when I tested them for hidden gluten in my article, Is Coffee Gluten Free?
Keep in mind, however, that many coffee substitutes are not gluten-free if they contain malt.
(24) Is Sprouted Wheat Gluten Free?
I write all about why sprouted wheat – and other sprouted grains – even if labeled flourless, are not considered gluten-free. Read the full scoop in my article, Is Sprouted Wheat [Bread] Gluten Free?
(25) Is Caramel Color Gluten Free?
Caramel color is made by heating carbohydrates. It’s generally considered gluten-free unless the starting ingredient is wheat or malt syrup. If the starting ingredient is wheat, the manufacturer must, by law, disclose that the product contains wheat per FALCPA. It is extremely rare that caramel color would come from barley malt unless you’re eating an obscure foreign-made product since, according to this celiac expert, gluten-containing ingredients are no longer used to make caramel-coloring in the U.S. North American-made caramel color comes from glucose (from corn) or sucrose (table sugar).
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 the 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, as well as a list of 200+ gluten-free foods you can eat. No detective work is required.
Is there a product I missed that you want me to decode for hidden gluten? If so, please leave me a comment. I will add new things to this list as I think of them.