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Ask the Dietitians

How Can I Avoid Hidden Sources of Gluten?

Before you stock your pantry with gluten-free packaged foods, make sure you know how to spot even the sneakiest signs of this wheat protein.

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When you’ve gone gluten-free, it can feel nearly impossible to find packaged foods at your local grocery store that aren’t filled with the ingredient. It’s seemingly everywhere, from frozen pizzas to chips to boxes of crackers to even frozen veggies, pickles, and salad dressings. So, how can you tell what’s gluten-free, beyond those visible “gluten-free” labels slapped on some products? And do those labels really tell the truth about what’s inside?

If you’re avoiding gluten, here’s what you need to know before you head to the store to shop for packaged products. 

What, exactly, qualifies as gluten?

Gluten is a protein that’s found in the wheat plant. It’s also frequently associated with carbs and grains – and that’s because gluten is found in some grains. However, not all grains contain gluten. According to John Hopkins Medicine, gluten is found in grains like rye and barley, but it’s only occasionally found in oats. 

While gluten occurs naturally in some foods and ingredients, it’s become increasingly prevalent in packaged products because it can enhance the texture, flavor, and even protein content of these goods. It can even give foods their shape. As Tiffani Bachus and Erin Macdonald, registered dietitians and the co-founders and creators of URockGirl.com, point out, “Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, is added to a variety of packaged products for use as a thickener, stabilizer or simply for color.”

Look for these sneaky gluten terms on food labels and packaging

Since gluten is popping up everywhere in food products that might not seem like obvious culprits, you’ve got to take a close look at ingredients and packaging labels to determine where gluten might be hiding. 

As the Celiac Disease Foundation explains, you’ll want to look not only for a “gluten-free” label, but also allergen listings that warn consumers about potential common allergens that may be found in a food product. However, keep in mind that two common sources of gluten (barley and rye) often aren’t listed on these common allergen labels.

In order to label a food product gluten-free, the FDA requires packaged foods to have less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. However, it’s still a good idea to check for less-obvious culprits and ingredients that may contain small amounts of gluten.

Bachus and Macdonald note that “This is a major problem for people who have gluten sensitivities or allergies, since gluten-containing ingredients can go by many different names on the product package. Your best bet in preventing a flare-up resulting from gluten is to be aware of the many terms gluten hides behind.”

So, what should you look for? Keep an eye out for these ingredients, Bachus and Macdonald suggest: “Some of the most common are: malt, barley malt, malt vinegar, textured vegetable protein (TVP), hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), monosodium glutamate (MSG), natural flavor, artificial flavor, dextrin, vegetable gum, smoke flavor, germ, brewer’s yeast, groats, emulsifiers, filler, modified food starch, bulgur, durum, spelt, triticale, farina, graham flour, Kamut, matzah, semolina, and wheat berries.”

Should you worry about cross-contamination with gluten?

Yep, cross-contamination can happen – and that means gluten can pop up in some pretty unexpected places and products! 

For example, “Watch out for gluten in oats and vitamin supplements, too – while these are gluten-free on their own, they’re often cross-contaminated with gluten, so look for products specifically labeled as gluten-free,” Bachus and Macdonald suggest. 

Additionally, it’s important to remember that, per the FDA’s labeling guidelines, food manufacturers aren’t required to test products for gluten in order to label them as “gluten-free.” This means that some gluten (even in tiny amounts) may wind up in the ingredients or finished foods despite a “gluten-free” label.

To learn more about going gluten-free and avoiding hidden sources of gluten, keep reading

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