It’s estimated that between 20%-30% of Americans currently adhere to a gluten-free diet. Most people understand that gluten is found in bread or pasta, but there’s a lot more to it. Let’s start with the basics and answer a very important question: what is gluten?
What is gluten?
One of the most common misconceptions about gluten is that gluten is wheat. That’s a decent ballpark answer, but not entirely correct. Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat and certain other grains. Gluten works as a binding agent, giving baked goods a pleasantly chewy texture and elasticity. Think about pizza dough or bagels - they owe their allure to gluten. Gluten also works as a stabilizer and thickening agent, so it is often used in sauces.
The Usual Suspects: Wheat, Rye, Barley, and (Cross-Contaminated) Oats
Wheat, rye, barley and most oats are the most common sources of gluten in the American diet. Our friends at the Celiac Disease Foundation shared a few examples of everyday food items made from these grains:
- baked goods
- salad dressings
- malt (malted barley flour, malted milk and milkshakes, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring, malt vinegar)
- food coloring
- Brewer’s Yeast
- rye bread, such as pumpernickel
- rye beer
Wait….aren’t oats gluten-free?
Oats do not contain gluten, but the specific protein found in oats (called avenin) is very similar to gluten. Some folks who are unable to tolerate gluten find that oats cause the same unpleasant reactions. Another issue that occurs with oats and oatmeal is contamination, which can take place during growing and processing. If you’re avoiding gluten, be sure to buy gluten-free oats and oatmeal. The oatmeal itself isn’t any different, but it is processed and packaged in a dedicated gluten-free facility.
Sneaky Sources of Gluten
Here’s where things get tricky. Certain foods like soy sauce, salad dressings, alcohol, and even french fries are sneaky sources of gluten. Because gluten is such a good thickening agent, it commonly pops up in some surprising places. For example, wheat - not soy - is the first ingredient listed in soy sauce.
If you think that’s sneaky, wait until you hear this hot tip: gluten can also hide in unsuspecting seasonings and flavorings. One of the most surprising is taco seasoning. Crazy, right? The lesson here: always read the label. Always.
What is Gluten-Free?
So….what exactly does gluten-free mean? The term gluten-free can be used to refer to a particular food, a diet or even a person who avoids gluten. According to the FDA, a food is gluten-free if it meets the following guidelines:
- Does not contain an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains,
- Does not contain an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten, or
- Does not contain an ingredient derived from these grains that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more ppm gluten
How can you tell if foods are gluten-free?
The best way to tell if store-bought goods are gluten-free is to check the packaging and the label. Sometimes, the label makes it in-your-face obvious. Other labels require a little detective work.
Look for Gluten Free Certifications
Some products are labeled “certified gluten-free”. However, gluten-free consumers should be aware that there are no standard methodologies required in the United States to certify a product is gluten-free. This certification process uses independent organizations, all of which rely on different tests and standards. However, if a product is labeled certified gluten-free, a third party has tested the product and confirmed that gluten levels are at or below 20ppm. If you are diagnosed with Celiac Disease or are particularly sensitive, it’s a good idea to choose certified gluten-free products.
Check for the words “gluten-free” on the packaging
n the US, there’s no designated symbol or logo for gluten-free foods, but you will find the words “gluten-free” on the packaging. Any manufacturer who can ensure that their products contain less than 20ppm of gluten may state that their product is gluten-free.
Scan the ingredients
If you don’t see a certification or the words “gluten-free” on the packaging, you’ll need to look at the ingredients list. First, look for a “contains wheat” statement under the complete list of ingredients. Then, take a look at the list of individual ingredients. Check for wheat, malt, barley, rye, and oats. Finally, scan for any suspicious ingredients that may contain gluten such as seasonings, modified starch, or natural flavoring. If you find these suspicious ingredients in the last step, check with the manufacturer or play it safe and avoid it altogether.
What if a product says “may contain wheat”?
You’ll find the occasional food that’s certified gluten-free but confusingly states “may contain wheat”. That message is geared more toward folks with wheat allergies, and typically means that the food may be processed on equipment that handles wheat. If you see the words “gluten-free” or a gluten-free certification, it’s still considered safe for Celiacs.
What does gluten-free mean at a restaurant?
Some restaurants list gluten-free options on their menus. That simply means that the food is prepared without ingredients containing gluten. That does not always, however, consider any contamination that could occur during the meal prep or cooking process.
How to order gluten-free at a restaurant
Obviously, you’d start by selecting a gluten-free menu item. Then, be sure to inform your server that you have a gluten allergy (we know….it’s not the same, but that’s the terminology most servers recognize).
Feel free to ask questions if you’re at all uncertain about whether a dish might contain gluten. Ask if gluten-free pasta is cooked in a dedicated pot, or if fried foods are cooked in a dedicated fryer. If the server looks confused, there’s no shame in asking to speak to the manager. If you’re new to the gluten-free game, you’ll have to get over worrying about whether people think you’re high-maintenance. You officially are.
Pro tip: make a reservation and notate your “gluten allergy” or that you have Celiac Disease and need to be served a gluten-free meal on the reservation notes. It’s an easy step that helps the restaurant prepare for your visit.
How to order gluten-free at a fast food restaurant
At fast food joints, much of the prep takes place within view. That’s good news because you can ensure they follow the appropriate protocols.
If you’re at a fast food restaurant that caters to the gluten-free crowd, they’ll know that they need to cover the prep counter, change their gloves, swap out utensils, and ensure that none of your ingredients could have come into contact with gluten.
At a pizza place or a sandwich shop, they will need to grab “fresh” toppings from the back and prepare your meal in a dedicated, clean space with fresh utensils. Check out this list of our favorite fast food restaurants with gluten-free options, and how to order safely.
Are gluten-free foods healthier?
The gluten-free diet is far more normalized than in the past. It’s not uncommon for folks to avoid gluten, even without Celiac Disease or sensitivities to wheat gluten. There’s no harm in avoiding gluten. You won’t become malnourished or miss out on any essential nutrients by eliminating gluten from your diet. It is important however to note that there are still quite a few misconceptions about the gluten-free diet. Some people choose to eat gluten-free because they think it’s healthier, others because they think it’s inherently low-carb.
Gluten-free diets CAN be healthy, and they CAN be low carb - but both depend on what you choose to eat. If you nosh on gluten-free cinnamon rolls for breakfast and then polish off an entire gluten-free pizza for lunch, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
What is gluten intolerance?
“Gluten intolerance” is a term that is collectively used to refer to Celiac Disease, non-Celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy.
What is Celiac?
If you’ve been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, it’s crucial that you eliminate all sources of gluten from your diet. Celiac is an autoimmune disease found in a small percentage of the population. About 1%-5% of the population is diagnosed with Celiac Disease, but many medical experts believe it is much more prevalent.
When a person with celiac eats gluten, it triggers an immune response that damages the villi in their small intestine. Over time, this immune response affects their body’s ability to absorb nutrients - causing a host of other unpleasant symptoms ranging from intestinal distress to cancer.
Infographic courtesy of Gluten Dude
What is Gluten Intolerance?
According to the University of Chicago, “Non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (what many call “gluten intolerance”) causes the body to mount a stress response (often GI symptoms) different from the immunological response that occurs in those who have Celiac Disease ( most often intestinal tissue damage).
What is Wheat Allergy?
A wheat allergy is similar to any other allergy. The body views the food as a threat and mounts an immune response, producing antibodies in response to the proteins found in wheat. Symptoms may include itching, nausea and even anaphylaxis.
When to Go Gluten-Free
If you’ve been diagnosed with any type of gluten intolerance, you’ll definitely want to embrace a gluten-free diet. If you’re undiagnosed and start to notice that you feel different after eating gluten, it’s a good idea to schedule a doctor’s visit to rule out celiac or any other digestive conditions.
Maybe you’ve already decided to eliminate gluten from your diet. In that case, welcome to the community of gluten-free folks which we’ve spent years cultivating - even when it was little understood or known. Make yourself at home and take a look around gfreefoodie.com! You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook, sharing in our favorite gluten-free recipes, cooking advice and gluten-free lifestyle tips so you can live deliciously. Enjoy!