The gluten-free label on packaged foods is voluntary: products labeled as gluten-free must by law contain no gluten, so you can be comfortable when buying “GF” packaged foods. But foods not labeled as gluten-free can be a bit more challenging: “gluten” doesn’t have to appear on the ingredients lists of packaged goods, so you’ll need to learn a few simple rules about what gluten actually is.
Gluten is a protein that’s found in certain grains: wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). That seems simple enough: but “wheat” can appear under various names based on the kind of wheat and/or part of the wheat grain that’s used: einkorn, emmer, spelt and kamut are all considered either types of wheat or wheat’s close cousins. You should also avoid foods containing these types of flours: enriched, farina, graham, bromated, phosphate, durum and semolina. And “malt” (including malt extract, malt flavor and malt vinegar) is often derived from barley, so is yet another ingredient to avoid (though to add to the confusion, “maltodextrin” and “maltose” are made from corn and are okay, unless you have an issue with corn).
Brewer’s yeast is one more gluten-containing ingredient to avoid. And while oats are in themselves gluten-free, they’re often processed in factories that process wheat products, so be sure to read the label and only buy oat products marked “gluten-free.”
As with other allergens, gluten can appear in some surprising places like salad dressings, marinades, soy sauce, barbecue sauce and licorice, so again, be sure to read your labels. In short, you should either stick to “gluten-free” labeled foods, or look over your ingredients list carefully.
The good news for those of us with gluten issues is that there are many delicious gluten-free-labeled products out there these days – so many, in fact, that you can easily sub in for most of what think you’ll be missing on a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free rice or flaxseed crackers are delicious, and there are many healthy breads you won’t notice are gluten-free: “Udi” is my favorite brand, though “Food For Life” (which also makes GF tortillas and English muffins) and Schar (which makes the best gluten, dairy and egg-free bread) are other favorites.
One final, slightly uncomfortable note that as the mom of three outgoing kids with gluten sensitivities I found I couldn’t avoid: parents of high school and college-age kids with gluten issues should be sure to have “the talk” about alcohol: most beer (except for the very rare variety labeled “gluten-free”) is made using barley malt and thus contains gluten. Many types of vodka, gin, whisky and bourbon are also distilled from barley, wheat or rye. Wine and brandy are usually okay, but flavored wines and wine cocktails might contain gluten. So please urge your kids to be careful, and again, to always carry their EpiPens.