How to Identify Gluten on Food Labels

Hidden gluten places some consumers at risk

If you're on a gluten-free diet, it's important to understand what the term "gluten-free" actually means on food and product labels. In the end, "free" doesn't necessarily mean "zero."

Instead, gluten-free suggests an acceptable level of gluten as determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unlike food allergens, manufacturers are not required to disclose gluten on food labels. they only need to specify wheat, which is not the only source of gluten in food. This can make it very difficult to choose "safe" products if you have extreme gluten sensitivity.

This article explains how you can identify hidden sources of gluten in foods and what you should know about gluten-free certifications.

Food label with wheat warning
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Alternative Names for Gluten

Sometimes, gluten-containing ingredients are listed under their scientific names, which are in Latin. 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, the following ingredients could potentially contain gluten. The FDA requires food manufacturers to list 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: May contain wheat fillers
  • Flavorings: May contain wheat fillers
  • Vegetable starch: May contain wheat fillers
  • Dextrin and maltodextrin: Both are sometimes made from wheat

Recap

People who need to avoid gluten usually know to check food labels for “wheat.” You may need to read labels more carefully, though, to find other ingredients that contain gluten.

Check for grains that are forms of wheat or which are made from wheat such as malt and farina. Also look for colorings, flavorings, or other additives. These can contain wheat. Be aware, too, of Latin names for different types of grains that might be used on labels instead of the English names.

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, unshelled eggs, or 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 method in the United States.

Several other organizations offer certification, each with its 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.

Summary

If you’re trying to follow a gluten-free diet, you need to be aware of ways gluten can be hidden in foods. This includes products containing wheat, barley, or rye. Less obvious gluten-containing ingredients include natural and artificial flavorings, hydrolyzed proteins, and additives made of wheat.

According to the FDA, a product can be labeled gluten-free even if it contains a very, very small amount of gluten. Even a trace, though, may be too much if you’re highly sensitive. Private organizations certify products that have minimal amounts of gluten. You can check the standards these companies set in an effort to lower your risk of exposure.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some sources of hidden gluten that aren't foods?

    According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, you should be careful about using or handling certain items that may contain gluten. Read labels or check with the manufacturer if you aren't sure about:

    • Lip gloss, lip balm, and other cosmetics that are applied on or near the mouth
    • Toothpaste and other dental care items
    • Vitamins and herbal and nutritional supplements
    • Medications (both prescription and over-the-counter)
    • Play-Doh (including homemade playdough that contains wheat flour)
    • Communion wafers
  • How can I avoid cross-contact with gluten?

    With vigilance. If you have celiac disease, you need to be aware of the possibility of gluten making its way onto kitchen items such as toasters, colanders (for example, when used to drain pasta), cutting boards, flour sifters, and containers in which foods containing gluten have been stored. Even condiments like mayonnaise can be contaminated if a knife used to spread it on bread is then dipped back into it.

  • Is there gluten in potatoes?

    No. However, when potatoes are processed—into fries or chips, for example—they may be exposed to gluten or flavored with gluten-containing seasoning.

  • What happens if someone with celiac disease comes in contact with a hidden source of gluten?

    Even a minuscule amount of gluten will trigger an immune response in the small intestine of a person who has celiac disease, causing damage to the villi that line it. Villi are fingerlike projections that allow nutrients from food to be absorbed by the body, which can result in severe malnutrition over time.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Gluten-free labeling of foods.

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

  3. Celiac Disease Foundation. Sources of gluten.

  4. Gluten Intolerance Group. What is celiac disease?