Learning to read labels is essential if you are going gluten-free. In this introduction to label reading, we show you how to become a “gluten-detective.”
The most important thing to remember when reading labels is to not get distracted by marketing claims on the front of the package. Because gluten is found in so many foods, we suggest reading labels on EVERY product.
The Ingredient List
This is where you need to become a gluten detective and read the entire label for potential glutinous ingredients. Ingredients are listed by weight in descending order. In the example to the right, we have highlighted in red the ingredients known to contain gluten. Those ingredients that may contain gluten are highlighted in yellow. (See: Hidden Sources of Gluten)
Which food allergens are required to be labeled?
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2006 (FALCPA) made it mandatory (for U.S. products) that packaged foods be clearly labeled if they contain any of the eight major allergen groups. The following are the class of 8 FDA-recognized allergens:
- Tree nuts – for example: walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews
- Milk – any protein from cow’s milk, for example: milk, cream, dry milk, whey, casein
- Eggs -whites, yolks, albumen, and powdered eggs
- Soy – includes soy beans, soy protein, soy flour, but not soybean oil
- Wheat – does not include other gluten-containing grains such as barley or rye
- Seafood – fish such as bass, flounder, and cod
- Crustaceans – shellfish such as crab, lobster, and shrimp
- Peanuts – which includes peanut flour, hydrolyzed protein, but not peanut oil
Labeling laws for gluten-free in the U.S.
According to the FDA, as of September 2011, gluten-free labeled products should (a) not include ingredients from gluten or gluten derivatives and (b) maintain a status of less than 20ppm of gluten for all gluten-free labeled products. This labeling standard is voluntary.
Decoding three common label claims
Manufacturer Produces Gluten, but the Product has “No Gluten Ingredients Used” on the Label
Many manufacturers produce both gluten-containing and non-gluten containing products in their facilities. When a product is produced on machinery that produces gluten or in a facility that has flour dust in the air, the product should be tested for its gluten status before it is labeled gluten-free as it could be cross-contaminated.
The Product is “Naturally Gluten-Free”
Companies may report that their product is gluten-free, because they use naturally gluten-free ingredients. The problem with this statement is that even a naturally gluten-free ingredient can become contaminated with gluten through production, storage or shipment.
“Made in a facility that also processes wheat.”
This can show up on products with a gluten-free label. This essentially means that cross contamination may have happened during the manufacturing process (See cross-contamination). Highly sensitive celiacs will want to avoid products with these labels.
Common symbols used to denote “gluten-free”
Even if you don’t see any ingredients on a product that you suspect contain gluten, we don’t suggest you buy/eat it unless it is endorsed by one of two organizations – the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) or the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA). Both certify products that meet their gluten-free standards * Remember ingredients can change in food at any time, so you might need to periodically check a product.
Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO)
To use a GIG seal, a food has to be tested and found to contain less than 10 parts per million of gluten. For each product certified, GIG auditors review ingredients and do an on-site inspection of the production facility.
Celiac Sprue Association
This seal can only be used on products that contain less than 5 ppm of gluten. In addition, CSA does not permit oats, even specialty gluten-free oats, in products they certify.
Coeliac UK, Britain’s leading celiac disease organization has finalized an agreement for all European countries to use a single universal gluten-free symbol on the front of all packaging for gluten-free products. Under the agreement, the Association of European Coeliac Societies will adopt Coeliac UK’s ‘cross-grain’ symbol as the standard for gluten-free labeling across Europe.
Independent labeling from a manufacturer generally follows the USDA suggestions, however mistakes do happen and we recommend that if you are a sensitive celiac to only buy products that have been third party tested.
Take home points
- Read labels on every packaged, boxed, canned, processed product – basically any food that has a label, read it!
- Carry your list of hidden ingredients.
- Choose products that have been third-party tested, especially if you have celiac disease (CD). When in doubt call the manufacturer or find something else.
- Don’t get overwhelmed – there are lots of gluten-free products on the market!