Reading food labels is one of the most challenging things I ever learned how to do. At first, it might seem simple – read the label and if it doesn’t list gluten it’s safe, right? Wrong. The U.S. is light years behind many countries on the issue of gluten-free labeling laws. In fact, no such law exists here yet. If you hear someone saying all forms of gluten must be called out on a label, ignore them. It is not so – at least not in the U.S.
It would be great if there was a simple way to learn to read labels but in all honesty, there just isn’t. One almost has to be a food scientist and detective to figure out what is and is not gluten-free. We covered the basics of what foods are natually gluten-free earlier. Now let’s try and decipher those pesky food labels so that your shopping trips will be a bit easier.
The first time I went to Whole Foods to look for gluten-free foods, I thought I was prepared but I was not. If you want to stick with packages marked gluten-free, you don’t have much reading to do, unless you avoid something other than gluten. You’ll usually find the prices on gluten-free marked items higher than those that are not marked that way. For that reason, you might want to learn how to figure out what is gluten-free, even when it’s not marked as such.
What does the law state in the U.S.? Since January 2006, it requires food companies to list wheat on food labels, something not previously required of them, believe it or not. It’s great that wheat is no longer a hidden source of gluten, but rye and barley are not required to be called out on labels. Rye is not really in anything except rye products so in my research, I’ve never found a product where rye was a hidden form of gluten. Rye is in rye bread, crackers and the word “rye” is usually in the name of the product. Therefore it’s super easy to avoid rye.
Barley on the other hand, is a different story. It can hide in the label and even today, still does in some products, though it’s increasingly rare. For that reason, I usually either buy a gluten-free marked item or stick to those made by the companies that voluntarily mark all forms of gluten on their labels. Barley is most commonly found as malt, and most of the time it will be listed like this – malt (barley) or barley malt. But again, the law does not require companies to list barley, so it’s up to each company whether or not they want to list it or not. If you just see the term “malt” without barley listed, it’s likely made with barley, unless it’s made by a company that discloses all forms of gluten on their labels.
Here is a list of known companies that clearly list ALL forms of gluten on their labels:
By now you might be thinking that you can just memorize these companies and your gluten-free shopping trips will be a breeze. Nope. It’s not nearly that simple. The above listed companies represent over three hundred food brands sold in the U.S. For that reason, it isn’t feasible for a person to learn all this information and commit it to memory.
Here are some tools to help you shop gluten-free :
Clan Thompson - software lists (both food and medications) – downloadable information. It is easy to use with a version that is updated thoughout the year and one that is not.
The Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide – printed guide that lists over 30,000 products by categories ; includes both gluten-free marked items and those that are not marked, but are gluten-free.
Zeer – online shopping tool that offers gluten-free infomation on more than 30,000 items ; shows photos of the product and label.
For iPhone users, it seems that there is a new app each month for the gluten-free set. Check out the recent article about the gluten-free apps here.
UPDATE: Check out this interesting article about food labels from the Chicago Tribune. It seems there is hope that one day reading – and most importantly – undertanding food labels will not be such a chore.
Have a question about the gluten-free diet which we haven’t covered yet? You can now submit your questions here! (Note: All medical questions should be directed to your physician)