Is Wheatgrass Gluten-Free?

Wheatgrass and Barley Grass May Be Cause for Concern

wheat grass powder and tablets
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Wheatgrass has become a superfood staple at juice bars and in supplement shops around the country. Even its lesser-known cousin, barley grass, has gained popularity in health food circles.

As someone who follows a gluten-free diet, you might pass on these fashionable elixirs because, well...wheatgrass is likely to contain wheat, right? Not exactly.

When considering whether or not to consume wheatgrass or barley grass on a gluten-free diet, there are several key factors—and possible alternatives—to take into consideration.

Is Wheatgrass Gluten-Free?

Believe it or not, both wheatgrass and barley grass are (technically) free from gluten. Surprised? Since wheat and barley are gluten grains, it's certainly fair to ask how their grasses could possibly be considered gluten-free.

When pure wheatgrass and pure barley grass are harvested properly, the seed (or grain) is not present in the final product. Wheat, barley, and rye grasses produce grains, but the grasses themselves don't contain them.

It is the wheat or barley grain that contains gluten—the protein that is thought to cause reactions in celiac disease and possibly in non-celiac gluten sensitivity. If just the wheat or barley grass is harvested with absolutely no seeds, there should be no gluten to cause concern.

However, in order to harvest wheat or barley grass without seeds or grains, timing is essential. Grasses must be cut when they are old enough to have developed their full nutritional potential. But if you cut them too late, they will have started to develop protein, also known as gluten.

By some estimates, a safe harvest window ranges from 10 days to two weeks. That does leave a margin of error and that's where things get tricky.

Understanding Gluten-Free Product Labels

Several companies sell gluten-free multivitamins that include wheatgrass and/or barley grass as ingredients. And there are other packaged wheatgrass products like green smoothies, supplement capsules, and powders that are also labeled or advertised to be gluten-free. Are these products safe to consume?

You need to be certain a supplier is using absolutely pure wheatgrass and barley grass in order for the product to be considered truly gluten-free. This turns out to be much more difficult than it sounds due to the high risk of gluten cross-contamination.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has guidelines about gluten-free labels. In their final ruling, the agency said that wheatgrass and barley grass can be used to make foods labeled gluten-free as long as the finished products contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. To reach that goal, everyone in the production chain needs to ensure that no seeds are included with the grasses.

Reasons to Skip Wheatgrass on a Gluten-Free Diet

While it may be tempting to enjoy the purported superfood benefits of wheatgrass and barley grass, there are a couple of solid arguments against it if you follow a gluten-free diet.

Imprecise Harvesting Practices

The farmer who grows and harvests your wheatgrass or barley grass may have the best of intentions in providing you with grain-free, gluten-free grasses. But given the small window for a safe harvest, it would be nearly impossible to ensure that no grain ends up in the final yield.

And if your local juice bar grows their own wheatgrass, it is very easy to cut the grass too soon or too late. This potentially exposes you to grains, even if unintentionally. You can avoid these issues by skipping wheatgrass altogether.

Cross-Contamination Concerns

Even if you are certain that the grass you consume is completely free from seeds and grains, there is always the possibility of cross-contamination—which is a significant consideration for those with celiac disease or non-gluten sensitivity.

In 2018, an important study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. For the first time, researchers were able to determine that individuals following a gluten-free diet regularly consume enough gluten to trigger symptoms and cause tissue damage. Study authors said that contamination was a key reason for the unintentional gluten ingestion.

Some foods have a lower risk of cross-contamination, but wheatgrass is not one of them. If you consume wheatgrass, barley grass juice, or supplements and regularly experience digestive issues, you may want to eliminate the product and see if the symptoms subside.

Some dietitians recommend avoiding any gluten-free-labeled product containing wheatgrass or barley grass unless you can verify that it's been tested for gluten cross-contamination with a specific type of test called the R5 ELISA test. Other forms of testing may not produce accurate results since they may underestimate the amount of wheat or barley gluten in the product.

Other Gluten-Free Options

If you're sure that your wheatgrass is free from grains and you experience no symptoms, should you give it up? Not necessarily. But there may be a better option if you're looking for nutritional benefits.

Despite the sometimes-wild claims about the health benefits of wheat and barley grass, other green vegetables can provide you with roughly the same nutrients or even more of certain vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health.

For example, there's more iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium in leafy green spinach than in wheatgrass juice according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Wheatgrass juice turns out to be a slightly superior source of vitamin E, but spinach provides significantly more vitamin C.

A Word From Verywell

In theory, wheatgrass and barley grass should be gluten-free since the gluten protein is present in the seeds and not the grasses. In reality, however, farming practices are not always exact and there is also the risk of cross-contamination involved in the manufacturing process. And the "less than 20 parts per million" rule may not be applicable to someone who is overly sensitive to gluten.

The bottom line is that there's really nothing in the wheatgrass or barley grass that you can't get from other green plants. It may be possible to find a properly tested gluten-free supplement containing one or both of those grasses, but you may be better off sticking with whole foods or supplements that don't include potentially risky ingredients.

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