How to Identify Gluten on Food Labels

Hidden gluten places some consumers at risk

Food label with wheat warning
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If you're new to the gluten-free diet—or even if you've been gluten-free for a while—you need to understand what the term "gluten-free" actually means on food and product labels.

In the end, "free" doesn't necessarily mean "zero." Instead, it suggests an acceptable level of gluten as determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unlike food allergens, manufacturers are not required to disclose gluten on food labels—only wheat—making it all the more difficult to choose "safe" products if you have extreme gluten sensitivity.

To make selection easier, you need to find out where gluten is hidden in foods. Some of these are straightforward (such as products containing wheat, barley or rye), while others are less than obvious. Other products still may only contain gluten some of the time.

Secondly, you need to know what the FDA requires from a manufacturer in order for their product to be certified gluten-free.

Alternative Names for Gluten

The following terms represent the most commonly used Latin terms for wheat, barley, and rye. If you see any of these, the product contains gluten:

  • Triticum vulgare (wheat)
  • Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye)
  • Hordeum vulgare (barley)
  • Secale cereale (rye)
  • Triticum spelta (spelt, a form of wheat)

Ingredients That Always Contain Gluten

The following terms represent ingredients that always contain gluten:

  • Wheat protein/hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • Wheat starch/hydrolyzed wheat starch
  • Wheat flour/bread flour/bleached flour
  • Bulgur (a form of wheat)
  • Malt (made from barley)
  • Couscous (made from wheat)
  • Farina (made from wheat)
  • Pasta (made from wheat unless otherwise indicated)
  • Seitan (made from wheat gluten and commonly used in vegetarian meals)
  • Wheat or barley grass (will be cross-contaminated)
  • Wheat germ oil or extract (will be cross-contaminated)

Ingredients That May Contain Gluten

Depending on the source, all of these ingredients potentially can contain gluten. The FDA does require food manufacturers to declare wheat-containing ingredients on their labels. However, other gluten-containing grains potentially could be used to make some of these ingredients.

You'll need to check with the manufacturer to find out for certain whether or not a food that includes one or more of these ingredients are safe on a gluten-free diet:

  • Vegetable protein/hydrolyzed vegetable protein (can come from wheat, corn or soy)
  • Modified starch/modified food starch (can come from several sources, including wheat)
  • Natural flavor/natural flavoring (can come from barley)
  • Artificial flavor/artificial flavoring (can come from barley)
  • Caramel color (now considered a safe ingredient, but if you're in doubt, check with the manufacturer)
  • Modified food starch
  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Seasonings (which may contain wheat fillers)
  • Flavorings (which may contain wheat fillers)
  • Vegetable starch (which may contain wheat fillers)
  • Dextrin and maltodextrin (both sometimes made from wheat)

Gluten-Free Certification

A food with no gluten-containing ingredients still can be cross-contaminated with gluten during processing. This is why it's extra important to pay attention to labels if you have extreme gluten sensitivity and to only choose foods certified gluten-free.

In August 2013, the FDA announced a new rule for gluten-free food labeling. According to the rule, manufacturers must ensure that their products contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten in order to carry the "gluten-free" label.

Some gluten-free advocates insist that the FDA standard is inadequate and that symptoms can develop at 10 ppm and lower. Countries like New Zealand and Australia have already embraced a certification standard of less than 5 ppm.

The gluten-free food labeling requirements only apply to packaged foods. The rule doesn’t apply to meat, poultry, or unshelled eggs or to distilled spirits and wines made with 7% alcohol by volume or more.

There is no standard symbol for gluten-free foods. Manufacturers can simply print "gluten-free" on their label as long as it is truthful. Moreover, there is not one certification criterion in the United States. There are a number of other organizations that offer certification, each with their own tests and standards for acceptable gluten levels. These include:

  • Gluten Intolerance Group
  • Celiac Support Association (CSA)
  • Allergen Control Group
  • Certified Naturally Grown
  • Non-GMO Project
  • NSF International
  • National Organic Program
  • Kosher Certification Agency
  • USDA Organic
  • Crossed Grain Trademark

The Gluten Intolerance Group's Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) is one example of an organization that offers certification to foods with less than 10 ppm of gluten.

For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, choosing a product with the GFCO label, for example, can make all the difference between good and less-than-good digestive health.

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Article Sources

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  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Gluten-Free Labeling of Foods. Updated July 16, 2018.

  2. Biesiekierski JR. What is gluten?. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017;32 Suppl 1:78-81. doi:10.1111/jgh.13703