What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

YP Editors

Going gluten-free is a dietary necessity for people with celiac disease. Even the tiniest amount of gluten can have life-threatening implications if they accidentally ingest it. However, in recent years, the concept of non-celiac gluten-sensitivity has been tied to everything from IBS to joint pain. While medical opinions about gluten allergy vary, more and more consumers are beginning to experiment with removing gluten from their diets. And gluten-free grocery products proliferate. But what is gluten, anyway?



Gluten is a protein that naturally exists in many grains. Gluten-free products do not have what the FDA determines to be a “detectable amount” of that protein. Generally, gluten-free products cannot contain any wheat (or its varieties), barley, triticale, couscous, or rye – the grains that naturally contain the protein gluten. Oats are also often eliminated from gluten-free products, though pure oats do not contain gluten.

Removing Gluten Through Processing


Because wheat starch is such a universal ingredient, andis used in many foods beyond baked goods, people have figured out how to process the gluten out of wheat starch to the point where no “detectable” amount of it is present. The FDA defines this as fewer than 20 ppm (parts per million). Products containing wheat starch with gluten removed are now making their way to grocery stores in Europe and the United States with “gluten-free” labels -- but people with extreme gluten sensitivity often choose to avoid products that have been processed to remove the gluten.

Gluten-Free Carbohydrates


It’s easy to confuse gluten with carbohydrates since historically most bread products contain some amount of wheat. However, there are gluten-free grains, including buckwheat, quinoa, and rice. Furthermore, potato, legumes, and corn are gluten-free. Many carbohydrate-heavy foods that do not contain any gluten are labeled “gluten-free,” just to let shoppers know.

Not Just in Bread Products


Because wheat starch is often used as a thickener, consumers can’t assume that bread products are the only foods to potentially contain gluten. Soups, salad dressings, plant-based fake meats, and even tomato sauces often contain gluten. Also important to note: Many flavoring agents are made of fermented wheat. Most commonly available soy sauce and vinegar brands contain gluten, and any product flavored with soy or MSG also contains gluten. That means potato chips, processed deli meats, barbecue sauce, and anything with malt sweetener could contain gluten if not otherwise indicated. Asian foods in particular are known for frequently containing gluten even when no visible carbs (except rice) are on the table.

How Do You Know For Sure?


An entire industry has risen up to accommodate people who want to eliminate gluten from their diets.That means that for all the products listed above, there are gluten-free alternatives that use, for example, rice vinegar instead of fermented wheat vinegar, or potato starch as a thickener instead of wheat starch. While the gluten-free industry used to have no standards or real governance in the United States, the FDA issued regulations in 2013 for labeling and compliance. If you are trying to eliminate gluten altogether, keep in mind that it’s just as important to read the labels in the sauce and soup aisles as it is in the baked goods section.

 
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