You’re in the cereal aisle, searching for a gluten-free breakfast option for your recently diagnosed son or daughter, and a product says “Gluten-Free” on the front of the package. You flip the box over to read the ingredients and they say “May contain traces of wheat.” Or you’re looking at bread options because you’ve just been diagnosed with celiac disease and all you want is to be able to eat a sandwich like the good old days, but any breads you’re finding without wheat contain several other grains that you just don’t know if you can trust are gluten-free or not. Sound familiar?
Trust us, we understand the headache and don’t blame you if you feel frustrated! Product labeling can be complicated and confusing, which is concerning when you need to make sure products are safe to eat. Check out this gluten-free label guide to help you next time you’re walking through the grocery store:
STEP ONE: LOOK FOR “GLUTEN-FREE” ON THE PACKAGING
This is the easiest starting point. If it says “Gluten-Free,” move on to step two.
There are several products you may encounter that are inherently gluten-free but are not labeled gluten-free. Many foods, like bottled water or fresh vegetables, won’t have the gluten-free label on them, simply because not every gluten-free product is required by the FDA to be labeled or certified as gluten-free. If, for example, in some wacky world, a bottled water company adds gluten to the product, this ingredient will show up in the ingredient list, which is why Step Two of this list is critical!
STEP TWO: LOOK AT THE INGREDIENTS
If it has wheat, barley, rye or malt in the ingredients, put it down. All four of these grains always contain gluten.
If it has oats in the ingredient list, look to see if the oats are gluten-free. Oats are naturally gluten-free, but more often than not, oats are grown near wheat which leads to cross-contamination. When it comes to oats, play it safe and look for the certification, as we’ll describe in Step Three.
STEP THREE: LOOK FOR CERTIFICATIONS
Manufacturers are legally allowed to put “Gluten-Free” on the packaging as long as the product tests under 20 ppm of gluten. Many of those with celiac and severe intolerances can’t tolerate even 20 ppm. That’s why several gluten-free brands are turning to third parties to certify that their products are testing for less than that 20 ppm. A common certification logo you’ll see on packaging today is from the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, commonly referred to as GFCO.
This symbol from GFCO certifies that the product has tested for under 10 ppm, which is typically a low enough amount for someone with celiac to tolerate.
STEP FOUR: LOOK FOR “HIDDEN” DISCLAIMERS
As stated above, just because a product says “Gluten-Free” on the packaging, doesn’t mean it’s completely gluten-free. The product may not contain gluten-containing ingredients, but the product could still be manufactured in a facility that produces other products with gluten and therefore increases the risk of cross-contamination. If there is a risk of cross-contamination with wheat, there should legally be a disclaimer similar to one of the following phrases somewhere on the packaging, typically below the ingredient label:
- “Processed in a facility with wheat”
- “May contain wheat”
- “Manufactured on shared equipment with wheat-containing foods”
When you see a disclaimer like one of the above, it’s best to play it safe and only buy products with the Certified Gluten Free label. This ensures the product has been certified by a third-party organization to contain less than 10 ppm of gluten.
We found this explanation from VeryWellFit.com to be helpful when deciphering whether a product with one of these disclaimers is safe to eat or not.
Note: Wheat-Free does not always mean Gluten-Free.
Don’t let a “Wheat-Free” claim fool you. “Wheat-Free” does not always mean it’s gluten-free. A product may not contain wheat, but it could still contain other grains that do have gluten in them. Refer to this list of gluten-free grains and non-gluten-free grains when reading labels.
That’s OK! You’re not alone. If you’re still not sure about whether a product is safe to eat, reach out to the company themselves. Many food and packaged goods companies have FAQs on their site where you could find this information or a customer service number or email.