What Is Gluten Free?

Elise Deming, RDN
Gluten free

Gluten-free foods are those that do not contain gluten. Many whole foods are naturally gluten-free, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, animal proteins, legumes, and non-gluten grains like rice or quinoa. Processed foods and some grains, however, may contain gluten either naturally, with added gluten ingredients, or from trace amounts from cross-contaminated machinery or storage.

Gluten-Free Foods

Some foods are always safely gluten-free. These are the single ingredient foods that naturally don't contain gluten (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and meat) and aren't processed in plants where other gluten ingredients are processed. These foods don't require gluten labeling or certification due to their naturally gluten-free nature and minimal possibility of cross-contamination.

Gluten-Free Labeling

Many foods, however, do contain gluten. Foods like baked goods and thickened soups or stews frequently contain gluten ingredients, and gluten can also hide other foods. Sometimes even reading the ingredients list isn't enough to indicate if a food contains large or trace amounts of gluten.

FDA Gluten-Free Requirements

Manufacturers cannot legally label a food product as gluten-free unless it meets certain labeling criteria. Gluten-free labeling is voluntary; that is, food manufacturers can choose to label foods that meet the criteria gluten-free, but they don't have to. In the United States, the FDA regulates who may apply this voluntary label to their food. Foods that may be labeled gluten-free according to FDA regulations include:

  • Inherently gluten-free foods
  • Foods that do not contain gluten grains or ingredients derived from gluten grains and contain fewer than 20 PPM (parts per million) of gluten

Certified Gluten-Free

Because even trace amounts of gluten can trigger symptoms in some populations, the need for certified and safe gluten-free food has created the gluten-free certification. This seal, depicted on food packaging, indicates the product and manufacturing facility was inspected by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization. This organization practices the highest standards for gluten-free safety. The Gluten-Free Certification Organization's standards include certified gluten-free foods must:

  • Contain 10 parts per million or fewer of gluten
  • Undergo continuous finished product, high-risk raw materials, and equipment testing

Additionally, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization states their "standard is stricter than Codex, USA, Canada, the EU and many other country standards for labeling products gluten-free." Certified gluten-free foods are safe for those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity to consume.

Choosing Gluten-Free Foods

Although labeling of gluten-free foods has become much more prevalent in the food industry, following a strict gluten-free diet can present challenges. Some common problems individuals face include the risk of cross contamination, limited selection options, and complications when dining out because restaurants may not use gluten safe practices in their kitchens leaving possible cross-contamination of gluten-free menu items.

If you're following a gluten-free diet for true medical reasons, the best practice is to only purchase food products that are certified "gluten-free," eat fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, nuts, and seeds that are naturally gluten-free, and confirm the safety of restaurants where you eat. These strategies ensure gluten is not making its way into your food.

Eating Gluten Free

Just like some people react negatively to dairy products, some individuals cannot tolerate a protein found in many grains known as gluten. To avoid gluten, individuals must follow a gluten-free diet, which consists of gluten-free foods. Following a gluten-free diet can present challenges, so speak with a registered dietitian if you have concerns.

What Is Gluten Free?