Can You Eat 'No Gluten Ingredients' Food When Gluten-Free?

What you should be looking for on the label

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Should people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity eat foods with no gluten ingredients that aren't specifically labeled "gluten-free"?

Unfortunately, no. In many cases it's not safe to eat these foods, because they're not really, truly gluten-free. Food manufacturers are required by law to list all ingredients, but they don't need to reveal cases when the food in question may have come into contact with equipment contaminated by gluten ingredients, or when the food in question may have been cross-contaminated with a gluten ingredient.

Read on to learn about food labeling, and why you should avoid foods that appear to have no gluten ingredients, but aren't specifically labeled as "gluten-free" by their manufacturers.

What Is the Standard for Labeling Products "Gluten-Free"?

Some quick background: In the U.S., the legal standard for "gluten-free" is "less than 20 parts per million of gluten." Any food that's labeled "gluten-free" must contain less gluten than that, and studies have shown that manufacturers are really careful with this standard—in one study, only about 1% of foods labeled "gluten-free" contained too much gluten. That's a pretty good success rate, and should give you confidence that foods labeled "gluten-free" really are gluten-free and safe to eat.

However, under current law manufacturers aren't required to label foods "gluten-free" if they don't want to do so. When a food doesn't appear to have gluten ingredients but nonetheless does not carry a "gluten-free" label, that usually means one of two things: the manufacturer believes there's a risk of gluten cross-contamination, either from the ingredients used or from the manufacturing process itself, or the manufacturer doesn't want to spend the time and money to determine if there's a risk of gluten cross-contamination in the food.

The study cited above, published in the scientific journal Food Chemistry, bears this out. The researchers tested 186 foods with no gluten ingredients that were not labeled "gluten-free," and found that nearly 20% of them had gluten levels above the legal level. A total of 10% had gluten levels above 100 parts per million.

That's enough to lead to a mammoth glutening, even if you're not particularly sensitive to trace gluten.

Many of the foods that failed the gluten test contained oats (not gluten-free oats, just regular oats) as a listed ingredient, so you should be particularly wary of those. Oats have a long history of being cross-contaminated with gluten, which is why gluten-free food companies take special care to source pure oats that have been tested for gluten. 

You also should watch out for "may contain wheat" on the label, as many products bearing that warning actually do contain wheat at levels higher than 20 parts per million of gluten, according to the study.

A Word from Verywell

So should this information change the way you buy gluten-free food? What exactly should you do about this? The easy answer is: Avoid food products that aren't specifically labeled "gluten-free." This is what I do myself and urge others, especially those who are new to the gluten-free diet, to do.

However, this unfortunately will limit your dietary choices somewhat, even with the rather rapid and extensive proliferation of gluten-free-labeled foods. Many people have a favorite food (or more likely, more than one) from the days before they went gluten-free, and they want to keep it in their lives.

Certain manufacturers—notably, Kraft Foods Group Inc. and ConAgra Foods Inc. (the parent company for such brands as Healthy Choice and Chef Boyardee)—say they will specifically label any gluten ingredients in their products. Based on this, many people in the gluten-free community say it's safe to consume products from these brands and others as long as there are no gluten ingredients listed.

The study from Food Chemistry, plus anecdotal stories from people with celiac and gluten sensitivity, show this isn't necessarily so, even though it may be true for specific products.

Should you risk it? It's up to you. If you do, you may want to keep those products in mind if you're suffering from a mystery glutening and don't know what to blame.

Source:

Sharma GM et al. Gluten Detection in Foods Available in the United States – A Market Survey. Food Chemistry. 2015 Feb 15;169:120-6.