When you first begin the gluten-free diet, reading labels can be very challenging. Oftentimes people develop a completely new understanding for what surprising ingredients are in our foods. The longer you're gluten-free, the fewer surprises there are. You should know the ingredients in your food and what might contain gluten. That means understanding ingredients a little bit more. Don't worry, getting good at reading labels comes with time.
It would be very easy for us if companies just used the term gluten as an ingredient, but unfortunately they don't. So we have to do what we can to know what ingredients are gluten-free and which aren't. Celiac.com has a great list of safe and unsafe ingredients for celiacs that would be helpful to bring with you grocery shopping. Using these lists as a reference could help keep you from unknowingly purchasing something with gluten.
US Food Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004
Reading labels became a bit simpler when the US Food and Drug Administration's Food Labeling and Consumer Protection Act became a law in 2004. It requires companies to declare all major allergens (milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans) on their ingredient labels.
Notice that gluten is not considered a major allergen. With this law, eventually we should see voluntary gluten-free labeling go into effect. In anticipation of this, some companies are already labeling products gluten-free, or "contains no gluten but is processed in a facility that uses wheat" and other variations.
The government's required declaration of wheat has helped our cause a bit. Companies can no longer hide wheat or wheat starch in "natural flavorings" for instance. But just because you don't see "CONTAINS WHEAT" on the label doesn't mean that it is gluten-free. You still need to look for other obvious ingredients like barley and rye, plus there are still some ingredients that are less obvious.
Finding hidden sources of gluten
There are a few hot button words that should always be investigated if they are seen on an ingredient list. The University of Chicago's Celiac Disease Center has done a great job explaining some of these vague ingredients and what may or may not be in them.
- Seasonings and spice mixes - pure spices do not contain wheat, rye or barley. Spice mixes, when two or more spices are blended together, do not commonly use wheat. Alternatively, seasonings are a blend of spices, herbs or proteins that are combined with a carrier including: salt, sugar, milk powder, cereal flours (wheat) and starches
- Dextrin - May be derived from corn, waxy maize, waxy milo, potato, arrowroot, WHEAT, rice, tapioca, or sago; however two large U.S. manufacturers use cornstarch in their production
- Flavorings - Gluten containing grains are rarely used. Flavorings are mostly derived from corn; exceptions include barley malt flavoring, or flavorings in meat products. However, natural flavor may be made from a variety of plant materials and should be confirmed with the manufacturer
- Modified Food Starch - The FDA requires manufacturers to state if starch comes from wheat using parenthetical statement, IE: (wheat) or will state: "Contains wheat" or "made on equipment that processes wheat"
- Starch - The FDA regulations state "starch" implies cornstarch, and if alternative starch is used it will be identified as such (ie: wheat starch)
- Mono and diglycerides - An emulsifier made from specific fats or oils heated at high temperatures. Previously in question because wheat can be added as a carrier with this food ingredient; the label will state if wheat is present
Source: University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center
Eventually the more you read labels, the more familiar you will become with certain common ingredients. Hopefully the information on this page will help you.