Is Sugar Gluten-Free? Do Artificial Sweeteners Contain Gluten?

How to Know if Sweeteners Are Safe for a Gluten-Free Diet

Sugar

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

In This Article

Pure sugar is gluten-free. Most sugar comes either from sugar beets or from sugar cane. Even though sugar cane is a grass plant and therefore a distant relative to the gluten grains wheat, barley, and rye, it does not contain the harmful gluten protein. Sugar beets are not closely related to gluten grains. Therefore, pure sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beets won't cause you to react if you're following the gluten-free diet. In addition, most artificial sweeteners are considered gluten-free.

Must-Know Facts About Sugar, Artificial Sweeteners, and Gluten

You'll likely see a variety of different sugar brands in the baking aisle. Nonetheless, the vast majority of sugar sold in the U.S. is produced by one of just two companies—the United States Sugar Corp. and ASR Group, formerly American Sugar Refining, Inc.

ASR Group manufacturers Domino's Sugar and Florida Crystals (an organic and natural sugar brand), while U.S. Sugar makes sugar for dozens of store brands, including IGA and Food Lion, and supplies sugar products to major food product manufacturers, such as Kraft Foods and General Mills.

Both ASR Group and U.S. Sugar Corp. run "sugar-only" mills and refineries, drastically reducing the chances of any gluten cross-contamination at the factory level (the type that could occur if a factory milled both sugar and wheat flour products).

For artificial sweeteners, Equal, Sugar Twin, and Sweet'N Low are considered gluten-free, according to their manufacturers.

Why Sugar Might Not Be Gluten-Free

The fact that sugar is naturally gluten-free doesn't mean you can let down your guard when it comes to sugar if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. There are instances when sugar can be problematic. Most of the problems with sugar on the gluten-free diet stem from cross-contamination, either at the grocery store or at home in a shared kitchen.

Larger grocery stores frequently stock the sugar in a different part of the baking aisle than the flour, which makes sense because otherwise, the similar-looking packages would be easy to mix up. But some smaller shops store sugar and flour side-by-side—and stray airborne flour from major package leaks or spills easily can land on your sugar package, potentially cross-contaminating you when you handle the package or pour the sugar. This may seem a bit paranoid, but it is possible to get glutened that way, so be warned.

To avoid the problem, only buy sugar in a large store where it's kept far from the flour, or make sure to wipe down the package carefully before handling it or opening it (plastic sugar packages are superior to paper in this regard).

It's also quite possible to get sick from plain sugar if it's been used previously for baking gluten-containing items—this happens after someone sticks a flour-coated spoon in the sugar bag. There's no way to detect this type of cross-contamination beforehand. To guard against it in a shared kitchen, get your own unopened bag of safe sugar, and prominently label it "gluten-free."

Also, a multitude of products contain sugar, and many of those are not gluten-free. Always make sure to double-check food labels for gluten-containing ingredients.

What to Look For in Sugar

When purchasing sugar, you may want to consider buying a package that carries a "gluten-free" label:

  • Domino's and Florida Crystals specifically label some products (usually specialty organic products) gluten-free.
  • Wholesome Sweeteners states that its sugar products are "processed and packaged in a gluten-free environment."
  • Sugar in the Raw states on its FAQs page that its sugar "contains no gluten, nor does it come into contact with glutinous products such as wheat during its manufacture."

Meanwhile, avoid Hain Pure Foods' sugars. A Hain customer service representative said the company could not guarantee that the products were gluten-free due to gluten cross-contamination.

There are other forms of sugar and it's possible to find palm sugar (made from palm trees) and coconut sugar (made specifically from coconut palm trees), although these are far less common and are considered specialty items. Some of these smaller specialty products are labeled "gluten-free," and those should be safe. Otherwise, you should contact the manufacturer to be certain.

Is Brown Sugar Gluten-Free?

Brown sugar is also gluten-free. It is made by taking plain white sugar and mixing it with molasses, which is gluten-free. Molasses is made either from sugar beets or sugarcane, much the same as crystallized sugar.

Light brown sugar uses less molasses, while dark brown sugar uses more molasses to make the final product. When purchasing gluten-free brown sugar, follow the same guidelines as you would when purchasing regular sugar.

It's easy to make your own gluten-free brown sugar, too. Simply mix one cup of white sugar with one tablespoon of molasses (for light brown sugar) or two tablespoons of molasses (for dark brown sugar). Grandma's Molasses is one recommended gluten-free molasses brand.

Brown sugar
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

What to Look for in Artificial Sweeteners

Three out of four of the most commonly available artificial sweeteners state that their products are gluten-free:

  • Equal includes four different sweetener products: Equal Original (blue packets) made from aspartame and acesulfame potassium; Equal sucralose; Equal saccharin; and Equal Next, made from aspartame and sodium saccharin. All are considered gluten-free and safe for people with celiac disease, according to the company. All Equal packets contain dextrose with maltodextrin as what's called a "bulking agent," or an additive to make the product seem more substantial (and more like sugar).
  • Sugar Twin, manufactured by B&G Foods, Inc., is made from saccharin, with added dextrose to make it appear more like sugar. According to the company, Sugar Twin products are gluten-free and are produced in gluten-free facilities.
  • Sweet'N Low, the pink packets on the table at nearly every restaurant, is a saccharin-based artificial sweetener. According to its manufacturer, Sweet'N Low does not contain any gluten, nor is it at risk for gluten cross-contamination during processing.

The fourth common artificial sweetener brand, Splenda, comes in yellow packets and is made from sucralose. According to the company, Splenda and Splenda brand sweetener products do not contain any ingredients derived from wheat, barley, rye or oats, although it states they "do not test our finished products for the presence of gluten."

Artificial sweeteners may pose a problem for a different reason. They are considered to be one of the top triggers for irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. So while a product may be gluten-free, it may cause your symptoms that seem reminiscent of a glutening. That's just something you should keep in mind if you try an artificial sweetener and react badly to it.

What to Look for in Natural Sugar Substitutes

Some people prefer to avoid artificial sweeteners, and for them, stevia is a sugar-free sweetening option. 

Stevia, also known by its scientific name Stevia rebaudiana, is a South American herb that's been used for centuries as a natural sweetener. It's 25 to 30 times as sweet as natural sugar (so not as potent as the artificial sweeteners), and it contains zero calories, zero carbs, and has a glycemic index of zero.

Gluten-free products made with stevia include:

  • Stevia in the Raw. This brand of stevia comes in packets, tablets, and larger quantities for baking and home use. It's considered gluten-free and the company states it "contains no gluten nor does it come into contact with glutinous products, such as wheat, during its manufacture." Some versions of Stevia in the Raw include dextrose and maltodextrin, both derived from corn, according to the company.
  • Sweet Leaf. Sweet Leaf makes a wide variety of products, from sweet liquid drops to crystallized powders that more closely resemble sugar (for use in baking). According to the company, Sweet Leaf is gluten-free. It's also offered in an organic version. Sweet Leaf stevia contains inulin, a vegetable fiber that is gluten-free, but which can be a trigger for people who react to FODMAP foods (many people with IBS follow a low-FODMAP diet).
  • Truvia. This stevia-based sweetener comes in packets, a spoonable white sugar-like version, a brown sugar version, and a version designed for baking. None contain any gluten, according to the company. The products contain erythritol, which is a form of sugar alcohol (with no calories). Although a few people report getting IBS-type symptoms from erythritol, most say it's fine if you're following a low-FODMAP diet.

    A Word From Verywell

    Some people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity report problems consuming sugar or artificial sweeteners even when they've taken care to choose brands and products that are considered gluten-free. In these cases, it's not clear why they seem to be reacting, although in the case of artificial sweeteners, they may be experiencing irritable bowel symptoms.

    Still, regardless of the potential reasons, if you feel as if you're reacting to plain sugar or to artificial sweeteners, you might try switching to one of the gluten-free organic brands or to one of the natural sugar substitutes listed above—you may find you tolerate that better. Always make sure to keep sugar and sugar substitute packages that are dedicated "gluten-free" separate from other ingredients in a kitchen shared with people who eat gluten.

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