If you love cheese and follow a gluten-free diet, you may be wondering which types of cheese are safe for you. Find out in this post if cheese is gluten-free and what to look out for.
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Cheese is a mainstay in the American diet. You can’t go to any restaurant or grocery store without finding something with cheese in it.
It’s on pizza, in sandwiches, in pasta, sprinkled on top of just about anything and everything, and is often enjoyed simply on its own as a snack.
While cheese is super common, if you follow a gluten-free diet, you may have considered that all cheese is gluten-free. Well, after doing some research, I’ve discovered that it isn’t always the case!
In this post, we’re going to talk about what cheese is made of, if it is gluten-free, and how gluten can find its way into cheese.
We’ll also discuss the types of cheese that are almost always gluten-free, those that almost always need a careful look at the ingredients list, and answer the questions about your favorite types of cheese.
What is cheese made of?
Most cheese is made of milk, cultures, rennet (an enzyme), and salt, regardless of whether you buy it at a grocery store or make your own cheese at home.
Cheese can be made using any type of animal milk, including cow’s milk, goat milk, sheep milk, yak milk, and even water buffalo milk. Yes, that’s really a thing.
The most common cheese you’ll find at a grocery store or at restaurants is made from cow’s milk.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in most wheat products, and acts as the “glue” that helps to hold wheat, barley, kamut, spelt, farro, durum, bulgur, rye, and semolina together to maintain their shape.
You can find gluten in whole grains, but also in many processed foods as well. If you purchase wheat bread, there will be gluten in it, because wheat by nature has gluten.
Many processed foods have hidden gluten in them in the form or gluten or wheat derivatives. These are also in the form of flavorings, binders to keep ingredients together, or other additives.
Is cheese gluten-free?
Most cheese is naturally gluten-free, as milk, cultures, rennet, and salt are all gluten-free.
There are some cheeses that may have gluten added to them, especially if they are low salt or fat free cheese. Others have gluten added to them as a stabilizer or preservative. You can find out if the cheese you’re buying contains gluten by looking at ingredients lists.
Be aware that different cheese products have different ingredients, and some may contain vinegar. If they do contain vinegar, you’ll want to be sure that it isn’t malt vinegar. Malt vinegar is derived from wheat and contains gluten.
These cheeses are generally ricotta or queso fresco. However, these cheeses can also be made using lemon juice.
Is cheese dairy-free?
Cheese that is made from animal milk is not dairy-free. In fact, the definition of dairy is anything that is derived from animal milk. Therefore cheese is not dairy-free.
However, if you follow a dairy-free diet, there are a number of dairy-free cheeses available on the market. These are made from plant-based milks, like cashew milk, soy milk, and even coconut milk.
Be aware that some dairy-free cheeses contain gluten, so check ingredients lists for hidden names of gluten before buying.
How can gluten get into cheese
Gluten can get into cheese in the form of thickeners, stabilizers, or preservatives. You can also find gluten in cheese if malt vinegar has been used in the process of making the cheese.
Depending on the cheese product that you’re purchasing, you might also find gluten in the form of wheat starch or modified food starch (which may or may not be derived from wheat). These cheese products are usually processed cheese, cheese spreads, or shredded cheese products.
Of course gluten can get into cheese by way of proximity, as well. For example, you could have cheese that gets contaminated with gluten by being near a plate of crackers.
If someone is dipping crackers into a cheese ball, then that cheese ball will very likely contain gluten. If you follow a gluten-free diet, you’ll want to avoid eating cheese where people are handling both crackers or toasts and cheeses next to one another.
You can also get gluten into cheese at a place like a deli counter. If the same machinery is used to cut cheese as deli meat, or is used on the same counter as cutting sandwiches with bread that contains gluten, then this may contaminate your cheese.
Types of cheese that are generally gluten-free
- Cream cheese
- Feta cheese
- Goat cheese
- Parmesan cheese
- Swiss cheese
Cheeses with higher risk of gluten
The places you will want to look for cheese with potential gluten and not from cross contamination are cottage cheese and shredded cheese, as these may contain modified food starch.
Modified food starch can be derived from gluten, corn, or potatoes so you’ll want to be sure that it’s not from wheat before you buy it.
Blue cheese is generally gluten-free, but some people are concerned about where the cultures used for blue cheese are grown, such as on wheat or rye bread. Be on the lookout for a gluten-free label when it comes to buying blue cheese.
Cheese spreads are another place to look for hidden gluten, as thickeners may be used to help with the spreads’ consistency. Read ingredient lists to be certain before you buy it.
Cheesecake is generally not gluten-free as the crust that is used is usually made using graham crackers, which are made with wheat flour.
Breaded cheese products, like mozzarella sticks or jalapeno poppers, are also not gluten-free as they will have a breading on them that contain gluten.
Are my favorite types of cheese gluten-free?
If you love certain types of cheese, you may want to know which are safe and which to avoid. Here are some questions and answers about your favorite cheeses and if they are gluten-free.
Is American cheese gluten-free?
American cheese is highly processed so you want to be sure you’re checking the ingredients list before purchasing. It’s possible that it contains modified food starch or wheat flour, so you’ll want to double check ingredients before you buy.
Is cream cheese gluten-free?
Most cream cheese is gluten-free, because it does not contain any gluten-containing ingredients. However be on the lookout for any cream cheese and cracker combinations, as the crackers will contain gluten and there may be a risk for cross-contamination.
Is cottage cheese gluten-free?
Cottage cheese is generally gluten-free, however sometimes modified food starch or wheat starch is used as a stabilizer to help prevent separation. Check ingredients list before buying.
Is ricotta cheese gluten-free?
Ricotta cheese is generally gluten-free, however sometimes vinegar is used in the process of making it. If the vinegar used is malt vinegar, then you’ll want to avoid this product as malt vinegar contains gluten. Also check for stabilizers or thickeners that contain gluten.
Is gouda cheese gluten-free?
Yes, gouda cheese is gluten-free.
Is pepper jack cheese gluten-free?
Yes, pepper jack cheese is gluten-free.
Is blue cheese gluten-free?
Blue cheese is generally gluten-free, but some people have been concerned about where the cultures for the cheese are grown. Specifically, if these cultures are grown on wheat or rye bread.
For the most part, even if the cultures were grown here, the transfer of gluten would be such a minimal amount. However, if you are celiac or highly sensitive to gluten, then you may consider avoiding blue cheese entirely.
Is shredded cheese gluten-free?
Shredded cheese may contain gluten in the form of modified food starch or wheat starch, that’s used to keep the cheese shreds from sticking together.
You can review ingredients lists before buying to be sure there isn’t’ any hidden gluten. Or you can look for a gluten-free label on the packaging.
Check ingredients on these cheeses:
- Shredded cheese
- Cottage cheese
- Cheese spreads
- American cheese
- Blue cheese
- Cheese spray
- Dairy-free cheese
- String cheese
- Cheese dips
Look for the hidden names of gluten on ingredient lists
Check ingredients lists for any obvious or hidden sources of gluten, such as wheat flour, malt vinegar, and modified food starch.
One of my little secrets is that I carry around a copy of my GFDF Take Along Cards so that I always have a point of reference when I can sneak a peek at the ingredient list of a food.
I hope if you’ve been wondering if cheese is gluten-free that this post has helped you find the answer you’re looking for.
As a general rule, most cheese is gluten-free, and there are just a few processed cheese products to be on the lookout for. Review ingredients lists, so you know what you’re buying is safe for your gluten-free diet.