What’s safe? What’s not?
Ever look at a label and wonder if the product is safe for your gluten-free diet? Of course, you have! Gluten, which is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley, sneaks into the most surprising places—from soy sauce in restaurant dishes to cross-contaminated oats in nutrition bars and snack foods. We all have a story or two about a close encounter with gluten.
Besides sneaky places where gluten might lurk, there are foods that sound suspect but are actually safe.
Before you cross foods off your list, or worse, dig in and get sick, let’s look at what’s safe and what’s not.
What is SAFE for GF Folks but Sounds Suspect?
You’d think this is a form of bread but it’s actually a species of flowering tree in the mulberry and jackfruit family originating in the South Pacific. A staple food in many tropical countries, breadfruit is most commonly used as a vegetable. This starch-rich fruit tastes similar to potatoes, although riper varieties taste sweeter. Breadfruit is delicious mashed or sautéed with garlic and oil.
You won’t find any sort of wheat here. Buckwheat looks like a grain but it’s actually a member of the rhubarb family. It’s a good gluten-free source of fiber and minerals and filled with antioxidants, leading many people to consider it a superfood. Buckwheat is naturally gluten-free but it may be contaminated by cross contact. Look for certified gluten-free buckwheat.
Another scary-sounding ingredient, corn gluten is gluten-free. The gluten in corn is a form of gluten called zein, which differs from the offending gluten in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Corn and corn gluten are usually safe for people with celiac disease. Some may still experience health problems from corn, perhaps due to the way the corn is processed (think, cross-contamination from shared harvesting equipment or crop storage).
Don’t be fooled by the name. The term “glutinous” comes from the fact that this rice gets sticky or “glutinous” (glue-like) when cooked. It comes down to its high starch content. This kind of rice is most often used in making sushi.
Despite the name, maltodextrin has nothing to do with malt or barley. It’s a tasteless, white, starchy powder that’s added to a lot of foods to improve texture, flavor or even shelf life. It’s usually derived from corn; otherwise, it comes from tapioca. Even if maltodextrin is made from wheat, scientists are quick to say that because it is so highly processed, any gluten protein would be removed, making it gluten-free.
Modified Food Starch
Modified food starch is made by using high heat to alter the starch’s inherent properties. It’s typically used as a food additive to thicken, stabilize or emulsify. While modified food starches can be made from a variety of starches, including corn, waxy maize, tapioca, potato and wheat, the most common sources in North America are corn, waxy maize and potato. In the United States, wheat is only occasionally used as a source of modified food starch and it must be declared in the labeling.
Mustard flour is another name for mustard powder or dry mustard, which is ground mustard seed. Sometimes it’s blended with gluten-containing ingredients, which will be listed as “wheat” on the label. Otherwise, mustard flour is safe for a gluten-free diet.
What Foods are NOT ALWAYS Gluten-Free?
Two ubiquitous foods—soy sauce and oats—can be any gluten-free person’s nemesis. Here’s why we give them a yellow light.
Soy sauce made in the traditional way is fermented with wheat. Tamari-style soy sauce is typically wheat-free. A few brands (like San-J) sell gluten-free soy sauce or tamari. It’s not unusual for a restaurant chef to season meals with soy sauce. Check diligently before consuming anything containing soy sauce.
Oats fall into three categories: conventional oats, which contain gluten due to cross-contamination with gluten-containing grains during harvesting and processing; mechanically separated oats, which can test as gluten-free but may contain hot spots of gluten; and certified purity protocol oats, which are grown and processed in a gluten-free environment and are generally safer for those with celiac. If an oat product is labeled gluten-free, there’s often no way to determine which “gluten-free” oats were used in manufacturing. Put on your detective’s hat and ask the manufacturer about the source of its oats.
Foods UNSAFE for Celiacs, Not Usually GF
Gluten can sneak into your food in many not-so-obvious ways. Make sure you stay vigilant when reading food labels.
Avoid these grains. They are all forms of wheat:
Couscous, Durum, Einkorn, Farina, Farro, Freekeh, Graham flour, Kamut, Low-gluten wheat, Orzo (a form of wheat pasta), Semolina, Spelt, Triticale (a cross-breed of wheat and rye)
These products usually contain wheat. Watch out for them.
▶ Bread crumbs
▶ Communion wafers (Low-gluten wafers are available.)
▶ Matzo meal
▶ Licorice (usually contains wheat)
▶ French fries and other commercially prepared potatoes. (Wheat is often used as a carrier to help the spices adhere to the potatoes. Restaurant French fries are often fried in the same oil as breaded items, making the fries not gluten-free.)
These products may contain barley, which is a gluten-containing grain. Watch out for them.
▶ Beer (Beer is made with barley hops unless it’s specified gluten-free and the source is identified.)
▶ Brewer’s yeast
▶ Malt (generally made with barley and often found in breakfast cereals, malted beverages and malt sweetener which is sometimes used in chocolate and carob chips)
▶ Miso (often fermented with soy or rice but sometimes with barley or rye)
Rye is usually apparent in ingredient listings. It is not disguised using other terms.
Food editor Beth Hillson is a chef and cooking instructor. She is founder of Gluten-Free Pantry, one of the first gluten-free companies in the United States, and author of Gluten-Free Makeovers and The Complete Guide to Living Well Gluten Free (Da Capo Lifelong).