Is Caramel Coloring Gluten Free?

Choose North American sources to be sure

caramel color in soda
Caramel color is what gives most soda its color. Aaron Foster/Getty Images

Almost all caramel coloring you see in ingredient lists for food produced in the United States will be gluten-free. Unfortunately, there are a few exceptions, so you can't simply assume it is safe if you are on a gluten-free diet. Here are the facts about this confusing issue.

The Malt Question in Caramel Coloring

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in its rules on color additives for the foods it regulates, says the color additive caramel can be derived from the following food-grade carbohydrates: dextrose, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, starch hydrolysates and fractions thereof, or sucrose.

Using wheat or barley malt—which is the most common kind of malt—would make a product off-limits to people with celiac disease. But registered dietitian and gluten-free diet expert Shelley Case, who is on the medical advisory board of the Celiac Disease Foundation, the Gluten Intolerance Group, and the Canadian Celiac Association, says that gluten-containing ingredients are no longer used to make caramel coloring in North America. Correspondence with major manufacturers of caramel color confirms that indeed seems to be the case.

While gluten-containing ingredients can be used in the production of caramel color, North American companies are now using glucose from corn or sometimes sucrose (table sugar).

When Is Caramel Color Not Gluten-Free?

There are a few instances where food products containing caramel color may use caramel color derived from wheat (or possibly from barley malt). Occasionally, packaged products imported to the U.S. from Australia or (even less commonly) Europe will contain wheat-derived caramel coloring.

If this is the case, FDA rules on food allergens require the product to specify the source of the caramel coloring by placing wheat in parentheses following the ingredient name.

Example:
Ingredients: caramel color (wheat).

This restriction doesn't apply to caramel color from barley malt syrup, but that's a very uncommon ingredient.

It's theoretically possible that a small store (or online outlet) specializing in imports could mistakenly sell a product containing wheat-derived caramel coloring that doesn't follow the FDA rules, but you're highly unlikely to run across a situation like this. The same applies to malt-derived caramel coloring.

Another possible complication: the FDA doesn't regulate all food and beverages sold in the U.S. In the case of meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products, that task falls to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which doesn't require labeling of wheat-derived ingredients. It's possible (but again, pretty unlikely) for you to find a USDA-regulated food item imported from Europe or another region that uses wheat-derived caramel color.

Finally, a third exception: the labeling on alcoholic beverages is voluntary, and those may also use caramel coloring derived from either wheat or malt.

Is This Really a Problem?

Case says it's not, since caramel color is so highly processed that it won't contain detectable gluten, anyway. She adds, "Caramel color is an acceptable ingredient on the gluten-free diet and does not need to be restricted."

That being said, sensitivity among people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity varies greatly, and it's possible that a very sensitive individual would react to caramel color that's been made from gluten grains, especially if they ate a lot of the product in question over a short time.

There are many who prefer to avoid anything made from a gluten grain, even if it's been so highly processed that it doesn't contain any detectable gluten. If that's the case for you and you're concerned about caramel color, you could consider buying only U.S.-made products that contain the ingredient, since then it's pretty certain the caramel color will be made from a safe grain source.

Sources:

Case S. Gluten Free: the Definitive Resource Guide. Altona, Manitoba: Case Nutrition Consulting, Inc.; 2016.

Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 1, CITE: 21CFR73.85. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=73.85

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