What is gluten in food? Find out what exactly gluten is, what gluten-free means, the foods you can eat on a gluten-free diet, and many more commonly asked questions related to going gluten-free.
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Whether you’re just getting started with a gluten-free diet or you know someone who is, this article is setting out to answer some of the most basic questions related to gluten, going gluten-free, and following a gluten-free diet. With this information, you can be well informed about what this type of diet consists of and whether it’s right for you.
What is gluten in food?
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. When you think of squishing a piece of bread in your hands, it will form a ball, then will bounce back. That bouncing back is often indicative of gluten. The gluten is the naturally sticky glue that is part of many whole grains.
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.
There is no way to remove the gluten from a wheat product, as gluten is an integral part of wheat. However, there are plenty of gluten-free products that contain no wheat or other gluten at all.
Now that you know what gluten is, let’s go over more questions related to a gluten-free diet, like:
- What is gluten-free? What does gluten-free mean?
- How can I tell if a food is gluten-free?
- Is gluten bad for you?
- Why go on a gluten-free diet?
- What is gluten intolerance?
- What are the health implications of a gluten-free diet?
- What foods do I have to avoid on a gluten-free diet?
- What foods are gluten-free?
- Is gluten-free dairy free?
What is gluten-free? What does gluten-free mean?
“Gluten-free” is the term used for food that contains no gluten-containing proteins. This can be in the form of naturally gluten-free foods or packaged products where measures have been taken, like using specific facilities or machinery to process ingredients to ensure no gluten is added as a main ingredient, binding agent, preservative, flavoring, or even that any cross contamination has occurred.
There are many foods that are naturally gluten-free, like fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs, fish, dairy products, beans and legumes, oils and other naturally occurring fats, nuts and seeds, and some whole grains.
Gluten-free foods that are processed and packaged have to meet specific guidelines (see below) in order to have a label of “gluten-free.” If you are allergic to gluten, you want to pay extra close attention to the details on packaging on if a dedicated gluten-free facility has been used for the processing of that food item. If you have a food intolerance to gluten, this might still be important to you, but less so than if you had a true allergy.
How can I tell if a food is gluten-free?
The quickest and easiest way to determine if a food is gluten-free is to look for a “gluten-free” label on a food. The FDA has a rule in place that states that a food product must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten in order to have a label of any of the following:
- No gluten
- Free of gluten
- Without gluten
If you find a food product with any of these four labels on them, you know the food is safe to eat on a gluten-free diet. The other way to know if a food is gluten-free if it does not have a “gluten-free” label on the package is to read the ingredient list. You will know if a food contains gluten if it has any of the following names in the ingredient list:
- Modified food starch
- Natural flavors
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Soy sauce
- White vinegar
- Malt vinegar
- Barley enzymes
Once you know the names of gluten, you will be able to identify them on packaged foods and avoid them while you continue eating a gluten-free diet. Without the gluten-free label, a product may still be gluten-free, but processed on the same machinery as other foods that contain gluten.
If you have a gluten allergy, it might be important for you to check the area beneath an ingredient list for notes like “made in a gluten-free facility” or “processed on a dedicated gluten-free line.” If your food intolerance is not severe, you may not be concerned with dedicated facilities and having a small amount of gluten in your food. This is a personal preference and you can decide what is right for you.
Is gluten bad for you?
Gluten isn’t innately bad for you. Problems arise when your body simply cannot tolerate the gluten protein (gluten intolerance) found in so many of the foods that are common in our society. Almost all popular snack food and processed food has gluten in some form as a main ingredient or as an additive.
The problem isn’t with gluten, it’s about the prevalence of finding it in our food supply. You can find it in just about all crackers, cookies, baked goods, pasta, and bread product in every store. You can also find it hidden in places you’d never expect, like deli meat or sausage, condiments, soy sauce, candy, and cereal.
Why go on a gluten-free diet?
The gluten-free diet has become somewhat of a fad in the health and wellness community in the past 10 years or so. While it’s great that the popularity has surged for a gluten-free diet for the prevalence of more gluten-free products on grocery store shelves, the gluten-free diet isn’t for everyone.
You should go on a gluten-free diet if you have an allergy to gluten (celiac disease) or a food intolerance to gluten (gluten intolerance). If you can eat gluten without any digestive or other health related symptoms, you should probably continue eating wheat products and other gluten-containing whole grains to keep a well-rounded healthy diet.
What is gluten intolerance?
Gluten intolerance is the name given to the condition where your body cannot properly break down and digest gluten. Gluten intolerance is not the same as an allergy, as it does not cause anaphylaxis, often a telltale sign of allergy.
Gluten intolerance often presents itself as one or multiple uncomfortable, but not life-threatening symptoms, such as skin reactions, headaches, diarrhea, digestive upset, and many others. Read more about gluten intolerance symptoms.
The best way to handle having a gluten intolerance is to simply avoid eating gluten in your diet. This can seem overwhelming at first if you aren’t familiar with a gluten-free diet, but it is relatively straight-forward and simple once you get the hang of ingredient swaps and finding gluten-free products at the store that are safe for you.
Beyond Celiac reports that “Research estimates that 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity. That’s 6 times the amount of Americans who have celiac disease.” This is just an estimate! Just think how big this number might truly be if all cases were reported – and if every person who had a gluten intolerance actually knew about it.
Many people live with gluten intolerance every day. With a few simple swaps and changes to the way you see the food you eat every day, you can still enjoy plenty of delicious food on a gluten-free diet.
What are the health implications of a gluten-free diet?
You may choose to go on a gluten-free diet, because you are allergic or intolerant to gluten, and your body cannot digest the proteins properly. You might notice symptoms of a food intolerance when you eat wheat or other gluten-containing foods.
If you don’t have any issue with eating gluten or other wheat derived ingredients, you might want to continue eating a diet that includes wheat and other whole grains that have gluten. This is because there are a number of great things about wheat that gluten-free diets miss out on.
People who are on a gluten-free diet may not get enough vitamin D, vitamin B12, folate, iron, magnesium, calcium, and zinc. Of course, you can supplement your diet with additional sources of these vitamins and minerals, as many people on a gluten-free diet do, but if you are not needing to start a gluten-free diet, I would recommend keeping this food in your diet for a well-rounded healthy diet. If there’s no health or medical need to remove gluten from your diet, why consider it?
What foods do I have to avoid on a gluten-free diet?
When you start a gluten-free diet, you will need to evaluate the foods you’ve been eating, and determine if they contain gluten. You’ll want to go through your kitchen and find any products that have wheat or gluten in them and stop eating them. Remove them from your kitchen to help make it easier to avoid them.
On a gluten-free diet, you will have to avoid most:
- Baking powder (check the ingredient list!)
- Blue cheese
- Caramel coloring
- Beer, ale, scotch, bourbon, grain vodka
- Gravy and stock (bouillon) cubes
- Lunch and deli meat
- Potato chips
- Sauces, salad dressings, and marinades
- Soy sauce (unless wheat-free tamari)
- White or malt vinegar
- Bacon or jerky
- BBQ sauce
- Rice or pasta mixes
- Instant potatoes
Of course, these are not ALL products, but these are the places you’ll definitely want to check first when it comes to ingredient lists. Look for the hidden names of gluten in these packaged products in your kitchen to determine if they contain gluten, and whether they are safe for you to continue eating.
What foods are gluten-free?
There are plenty of foods that are safe on a gluten-free diet, such as:
- Meat, fish, and poultry (when nothing has been added to them in processing, like flavorings or marinades)
- Dairy products
- Beans and legumes
- Fresh and frozen fruit
- Fresh and frozen vegetables
- Oils and plant-based fats (avocados, coconut, chia, flax, and hemp seeds)
- Gluten-free whole grains (rolled oats – from a dedicated gluten-free facility, brown rice, quinoa, kasha, amaranth, teff, millet, corn, sorghum, wild rice, white rice)
There are a lot of other gluten-free foods that are safe from grocery stores that are processed and packaged, you just need to do a little more research to determine which of these are safe.
One of the most important things to know on a gluten-free diet is to learn how to read ingredient lists. When you know the other names of gluten, you can easily read any ingredient list of a packaged food to determine if it’s safe for your gluten-free diet. If an ingredient list has any of the names of gluten, put it back on the grocery store shelf and keep looking for one that is safe for you.
If you can’t find something in store, you can always look for things on Amazon or Thrive Market. There are plenty of gluten-free foods available these days, but it might require a bit of research to find what you’re looking for.
Is gluten-free dairy-free?
Many people often ask if a gluten-free diet includes dairy, eggs, or any other allergen. If you’re eating a gluten-free diet, it does not include dairy. A dairy-free diet would include removing all dairy products, such as milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, and any other milk or cream-based products.
If you are set out to remove gluten from your diet, this won’t include dairy. However, you can always start a gluten AND dairy-free diet if you choose. If you’ve gone gluten-free and suspect that dairy might be a food trigger for you and any health issues or symptoms you may be experiencing.
Find out more about how to know you have food intolerances.