Gluten is the trouble-making ingredient you’re supposed to avoid when going on a gluten free diet. But how do you avoid something if you aren’t sure what it is or where to find it? I’ll admit, this can be a challenge. It’s just not as obvious I’d like it to be, but once you learn how to spot it you’ll feel more confident about grocery shopping. Also, knowing what gluten is and how it works in food can help you understand how to cook with gluten free ingredients.
What Is This Gluten Stuff?
Gluten is the stretchy glue that helps bread, pizza crust, and other baked goods get nice puffy air pockets. It creates a flexible structure that helps each baked good hang together without necessarily being tough or chewy. When a baker knows how to properly activate the gluten protein, it will start doing its thing. The presence of gluten has influenced baking techniques for decades, even centuries. Sorry, I’m not trying to build up gluten as some kind of magical essence that turns good food into great food. It’s just one of many ingredients with useful properties out there in the world. It happens that wheat is commonly grown and used across the world, and it affects a lot of food in Western cultures.
Ready for a little science? Gluten is made up of two types of proteins – one is the gliadins, the other is the glutenins. In the digestive tract, these proteins each break down further into different peptides. These peptides are made of strings of amino acids, somewhat like a string of pearls. It’s the make-up of some of these peptides that causes trouble for people with celiac disease. The gliadin variety of gluten proteins is the most damaging, but some research has shown adverse reactions to the glutenin proteins as well. OK, enough of the technical talk - let's start looking.
Where Does Gluten Lurk In My Food?
Up to this point, you have probably been picturing a wheat stalk as your eternal foe, your Kryptonite. Ah, but don’t lull yourself into thinking that “wheat free” is synonymous with “gluten free”. Wheat may be the most obvious grain to avoid, but gluten is also present in rye and barley. I can’t honestly think of many products containing rye that wouldn’t also have wheat in them (like cereal or bread). While you clearly have to look out for it, rye should be much easier to avoid than wheat.
Caramel coloring and malt flavoring are made from barley. Barley hops also have gluten in them, so all regular beer makes the “not safe” list. There are a few brands that are specifically labeled “gluten free” because they are brewed with completely different grains (and no barley whatsoever). Some beer companies have stated that “low barley beer” is safe for celiacs, but that seems like an unnecessary risk. Even if you have a mild sensitivity to gluten, low barley beer could still cause health problems for you. It's really best for everyone with a gluten issue to stay completely away from any sort of "regular" beer, no matter how safe a company says it is.
OK, so no regular beer, no pasta, bread, pizza, cakes, or cookies made with any sort of wheat-based flour, and that's it? I wish I could say it was that easy. Through the miracles of modern food manufacturing, gluten-containing grains have been transformed in numerous widely used ingredients in all sorts of processed foods. Would you like a little malt flavoring (barley) in your cereal? How about a thickening agent (wheat flour) in your prepackaged chicken broth? What about that wheat-brewed soy sauce? And chip flavorings, and Play-Doh (not even a food!), and Twizzlers, and in your mixed nuts, in some processed meats, in your cosmetics, as a filler in some medications, toothpaste, and certain pasta sauces. The list of unbelievable hiding places goes on and on. Label-reading needs to become one of your earliest gluten free habits.
Some Confusion – Is It Safe Or Not?
Now that I have you on high alert (I know, hang in there), it’s time to throw a few more things at you. Even when you think you know what you are reading, you might get a little confused about a few things. Despite its name, Maltodextrin is NOT made from malt (barley), and should be safe if manufactured in the United States. According to the FDA, maltodextrin made in the US is from corn starch, potato starch, or rice starch. Elsewhere, it can be made from wheat. Also MSG (also known as monosodium glutamate) is NOT made from wheat in the US anymore, though you may have other reasons to possibly avoid MSG. Modified food starch is made from corn, and the FDA requires that any other source be clearly labeled.
Some shady-looking ingredients should make you look twice and ask someone at the food company to be sure. These include the following: fillers, binders, stabilizers, and the ever-mysterious “natural flavors”. Yeah, gluten is natural, but that doesn’t mean you want to eat it! And beware of anything that says it’s “enriched” unless you know what the company is referring to. Again, make a phone call or look up the company website. Some food manufacturers will always state whether these vague terms refer to a gluten source. It’s a “We Will Never Hide Gluten” type of labeling policy, which I think all manufacturers should adopt. You have to know which companies do this so you have some ability to shop for groceries and keep a sane mind.
Contamination? But I’m Not Eating Poison
Well, in a way you are. Gluten is guaranteed to harm you in some way if you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. When gluten free foods are processed in a facility where other gluten-containing products are made, there’s a risk of the gluten crossing over and leave a trace contamination on the gluten free product. This cross-contamination is sometimes enough to cause people problems, which is why some food companies are making more effort to label this now.
The gluten free diet is really different from low sodium, diabetic, or low fat diets. With these diets, the goal is to reduce the offending ingredient as much as possible, but having a trace amount isn’t necessarily harmful. With gluten sensitivities and true food allergies like for peanut and shellfish, you have to be so vigilant because a tiny amount is all it takes to put you at risk. You must know if there is the remote possibility of even a half-molecule of the problem ingredient present. It can make you seem a little bit obsessive-compulsive, but it’s completely justified.
Different companies have different policies for labeling potential cross-contamination. Two companies I frequently rely on are Kraft and the Walmart brand. They will label an allergen if there is even a chance that it could be cross-contaminated. Walmart’s canned tomato products have a wheat warning on the label. I haven’t a clue what else is in that factory that puts canned tomatoes at risk, but I’m glad they tell me about it. They will also sometimes directly label something as “gluten free” or “naturally gluten free”. Kraft will also label allergens if there is any risk of cross contamination. You’ll need to just start asking and calling companies to get your own short list of truly safe food. If you are in doubt, don’t get it.
So Is It Gluten Free Or Not? Just Tell Me!
On some magical day, the food industry and the FDA will have a completely universal labeling system where everything is 100% clear, and not a single gluten particle escapes notice, and every food company follows it to the letter. Unfortunately, that day is not today. In order to be truly safe, you always have to consider cross-contamination and examine that “Gluten Free” label with a squinty eye. Many times I’ve seen something labeled “Gluten Free” in bold letters across the top, only to find a smaller warning on the back that says the product is not made in a gluten free facility. This, my friends, is the point where you have to make a decision based on your health and risk aversion.
The whole cross-contamination thing has caused me to come up with two general risk categories – “gluten free by ingredient” and “gluten free from a safe facility”. This is really for products that are processed in some way, not fresh produce. This distinction is important for you to understand as you make your food choices and determine how much risk you are willing to accept. If you want to be sure you don’t let an iota of gluten past your lips, then the gluten free facility is your friend. An acceptable alternative can be a stout practice of cleaning and testing product lines when something is made in a shared facility. But, if you are OK with the minute risk of cross-contamination being present, you can probably relax your eye a bit when you see the words “gluten free” on a label. Just be sure you know what your acceptable risk line is so you know what to look for (especially helpful if someone else does your shopping for you).
Let’s Go Shopping For Gluten Free Food
So, what can you take away from all this? That label reading is really really important, and that gluten free doesn’t always mean completely gluten free, and that it’s helpful to carry a cell phone in the grocery store. You are in charge of your own health, and knowing this important information can make it a lot easier to get through the grocery store in one piece.
Watch for the small print – it makes a difference! My husband was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2006 and we've kept a gluten free home ever since. Learn about the gluten free diet and get great recipes from me, Erika Krull, at http://gluten-free-diet-guide.com. Find more gluten free articles here at http://gluten-free-diet-guide.com/gluten-free-articles/
(Editor's Note: Glutenfreeworks.com does NOT consider oats to be a safe choice for people with celiac disease at this time. Please see Why Oats Should Be Excluded from the Gluten-Free Diet for more information.)