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What is Gluten and Where can it Hide?

This is the first in a weeklong series on Going Gluten Free. 

If you are going to eliminate gluten from your diet, then you should start with learning what is Gluten Free.  This discussion is limited to gluten that you can ingest through your mouth.  Breads and pasta are obvious sources of gluten, but a true gluten free diet includes a lot more than that. 

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and derivatives of these grains. If you are on a gluten free diet, you must avoid any foods containing these grains or their derivatives.

Grains Not Allowed on the Gluten Free Diet include:

  • Wheat including but not limited to Bulgur, Coucous, Einkorn, Durum, Faro, Graham, Kamut, Matzo Meal, Semolina and Spelt.
  • Barley is a grain and also used to make malt flavoring. It can be listed as barley, barley malt or just malt. Manufactures are not required to list barley as an ingredient so, although rare, barley malt can be simply listed as "flavoring.”
  • Rye can be found in sandwich bread. It is common in German and Eastern European countries to use rye flour in bread with caraway seeds, and in pumpernickel bread.
  • Triticale is a grain created from the crossbreeding of wheat and rye. It can be used in bread, cereal manufacturing, brewing and distilling.

Some, but not all, Safe Grains and Starches that are Naturally Gluten Free:

The following grains are naturally gluten free and safe on the GF diet. Only choose grains and flours labeled gluten free. A small study published in 2010 tested 22 samples of inherently GF grains, seeds and flours for gluten contamination. None of the products tested were labeled GF. Of the samples tested, 32% were found to have gluten levels greater than the FDA proposed level of 20 ppm. The study was considered too small to make of determination of which grains are more or less likely to be contaminated but based on the study, only choose grains and flours labeled gluten free.

  • Amaranth – high protein and fiber
  • Arrowroot
  • Buckwheat – has no relation to wheat.  Make sure it is not combined with wheat flour.
  • Corn (Maize)
  • Corn Starch
  • Flax
  • Millet
  • Quinoa - new research is showing that some quinoa may be contaminated by barley. Make sure the quinoa is labeled gluten free.
  • Rice
  • Sorghum
  • Soy
  • Tapioca
  • Teff

Other Food/Ingredients that are Gluten Free in their Natural Unprocessed Form unless Otherwise Noted:

  • Beans
  • Butter
  • Canola oil
  • Cheese
  • Chickpeas
  • Citric acid – usually made from corn, beet sugar or molasses. Even if made from wheat, it is so highly processed that no gluten protein would remain.
  • Dextrin - a partially hydrolyzed starch that can be made from corn, potato, arrowroot, rice, tapioca or wheat. If made from wheat will be labeled as such and is not safe on the gluten free diet.
  • Dextrose - made from rice, corn or wheat starch but is so highly processed that it is gluten free regardless of the starch source. 
  • Eggs
  • Fruit
  • Glucose syrup
  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein - if derived from wheat will be labeled as hydrolyzed wheat protein and is not gluten free.
  • Maltodextrin made in the USA is made from corn, potato or rice.
  • Meat (plain)
  • Mono and Diglycerides are fats made from oil such as soybean, cottonseed, sunflower and palm oil.
  • Nuts
  • Polenta
  • Sesame
  • Spices - pure spices are gluten free.
  • Vegetables
  • Whey – the liquid part of milk that is separated from solids when cheese is made. It is gluten free.

What about Oats? Oats do not contain gluten but are often contaminated with wheat so if you see them in an ingredient list you should not consider the product gluten free. The only exception is gluten free food specially processed with Certified Gluten Free Oats such as Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Oats. Current research indicates that pure uncontaminated oats consumed in moderation (up to 1/2 cup dry oats daily) are tolerated by most celiacs. Source Note that a very small percent of celiacs do react to pure, uncontaminated oats.   The cause for this reaction is not yet completely understood.  Consult your physician if you develop symptoms after eating oats labeled gluten free.

Children’s Art Supplies Not technically food, but don’t you remember the taste of Play-Doh?  Play-Doh contains wheat. 

Distilled alcoholic beverages Distilled products such as alcoholic beverages do not contain harmful gluten peptides. Research indicates that the gluten peptide is too large to carry over in the distillation process. For this reason, wines and hard liquor/distilled beverages are gluten free. Beers, ales and largers made from gluten containing grains are not distilled and therefore, are not gluten free. There are many gluten free beers in the United States that are made with a substitute for malted barley.

Vinegar Distillation successfully removes gluten from the vinegar. One exception is malt vinegar made from barley that is fermented but not distilled and thus not safe for those on a gluten free diet.

Are “flavorings” gluten free? Under the FALCPA a flavoring derived from wheat must be labeled as "flavor (wheat)" or "wheat" will be included in the “Contains Statement” at the end of the ingredient list. However, seasonings and seasoning mixes can contain gluten. There are several taco seasonings that contain gluten.
The trickier issue is barley, which can be used as a flavoring. Some companies voluntarily list barley or malt flavoring, or malt extract but they are not required to do so. While it appears that there are rare cases in which barley or malt are used and not labeled, when in doubt call the manufacturer.

Herbs and Spices Single ingredient herbs and spices are naturally Gluten Free.  Recently, there has been a little controversy over the GF status of spices after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency released a report, which indicated that some very specific spices might be cross contaminated with gluten.   Imported cloves and mace (a spice from the nutmeg plant), and domestic coriander had the highest gluten levels.

It is important to remember that even if a spice contains more than 20 ppm you use so little of it that the end result would be consumption of such a small amount that it probably does not pose a health risk.   To be safe, double check with the manufacturer on the processes for prevention of cross-contamination. 

Caramel color is generally made from corn, but it can be made from malt syrup although this appears to be rare. When in doubt, double-check or go without.

Soy sauce is usually fermented from wheat and is therefore not safe on a gluten free diet. However, there are a few GF brands including Organic Wheat Free Tamari Soy Sauce Tamari by San J and Little Soya.

Pharmaceuticals and Medications may contain gluten and there are currently no requirements for labeling gluten found in these items. Confirm the ingredients with your pharmacist or check Gluten Free Drugs.com a list that is maintained by a clinical pharmacist as a public service.

Cosmetics and Personal Hygene Anything that can be ingested through your mouth can be a source of gluten. This applies to, but is not limited to, Chap stick, lipstick and toothpaste. Play Doh contains gluten. Even bug spray and sunscreen can have gluten in them. Gluten cannot be absorbed through the skin, but how many times have you gotten sunscreen in your mouth?

Other Places where Gluten can be Hidden: Gluten can be hidden in many different places. Frequently overlooked foods that may contain gluten include:

  • Beer
  • Brewers’ yeast, when it is a by-product of beer, is not considered GF. 
  • Broth
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Breading and coating mixes
  • Communion wafers
  • Croutons
  • Energy Bars
  • Flour or cereal products
  • Fried foods – can be contaminated from being fried in oil that has fried something with gluten in it.
  • Imitation bacon
  • Imitation seafood
  • Licorice
  • Marinades
  • Matzo
  • Panko
  • Pastas
  • Processed luncheon meats
  • Salad dressings
  • Sauces, gravies
  • Seasoned rice mixes
  • Self-basting poultry
  • Soup and soup bases
  • Stuffing, dressing
  • Thickeners (Roux)
  • Vegetables in sauce
  • Veggie Burgers





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