Should You Eat 'No Gluten Ingredients' Food When Gluten-Free?

No Gluten Ingredients, Check ... But Should You Consider It 'Gluten-Free'?

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Is it really gluten-free or not?. Getty Images/Dave and Les Jacobs

Question: Should people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity eat foods with no gluten ingredients that aren't specifically labeled "gluten-free"?

From a reader: "My doctor told me all I need to do to follow the gluten-free diet is to avoid foods with wheat, barley and rye listed in their ingredients. But I feel like I'm reacting to some foods that aren't specifically labeled 'gluten-free,' even though they don't have obvious gluten ingredients. Is it safe to eat these foods?"

Answer: Unfortunately, no. In many cases it's not safe to eat these foods, because they're not really gluten-free.

Some quick background: In the U.S., the legal standard for "gluten-free" is "less than 20 parts per million of gluten." Any food that's labeled "gluten-free" must contain less gluten than that, and studies have shown that manufacturers are really careful with this standard — in one recent study, only about 1% of foods labeled "gluten-free" contained too much gluten.

However, manufacturers aren't required to label foods "gluten-free" if they don't want to do so. When a food doesn't appear to have gluten ingredients but nonetheless does not carry a "gluten-free" label, that usually means the manufacturer believes there's a risk of gluten cross-contamination, either from the ingredients used or from the manufacturing process itself.

The study, published in the scientific journal Food Chemistry, bears this out.

The researchers tested 186 foods with no gluten ingredients that were not labeled "gluten-free," and found that nearly 20% of them had gluten levels above the legal level. A total of 10% had gluten levels above 100 parts per million.

That's enough to lead to a mammoth glutening, even if you're not particularly sensitive to trace gluten.

Many of the foods that failed the gluten test contained oats (not gluten-free oats, just regular oats) as a listed ingredient, so you should be particularly wary of those. It also helps to watch out for "may contain wheat" on the label, as many of those products do contain wheat at levels higher than 20 parts per million of gluten, according to the study.

So What Should I Do About This?

The easy answer is: Avoid food products that aren't specifically labeled "gluten-free." This is what I do myself and urge others, especially those who are new to the gluten-free diet, to do.

However, I acknowledge that this will limit your dietary choices somewhat, even with the rather rapid and extensive proliferation of gluten-free-labeled foods. Many people have a favorite food (or more likely, more than one) from the days before they went gluten-free, and they want to keep it in their lives.

Certain manufacturers — notably, Kraft Foods Group Inc. and ConAgra Foods Inc. (the parent company for such brands as Healthy Choice and Chef Boyardee) — say they will specifically label any gluten ingredients in their products.

Based on this, many people in the gluten-free community say it's safe to consume products from these brands and others as long as there are no gluten ingredients listed.

The study from Food Chemistry, plus anecdotal stories from people with celiac and gluten sensitivity, show this isn't necessarily so.

Should you risk it? It's up to you. If you do, you may want to keep those products in mind if you're suffering from a mystery glutening and don't know what to blame.

Source:

Sharma GM et al. Gluten detection in foods available in the United States – A market surveyFood Chemistry. 2015 Feb 15;169:120-6.

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