6 Myths About Gluten-Free Food Products

gluten free baking
Creative RF/Getty Images

As consumers, we learn to trust food labels especially when we must follow a specific diet due to a condition like celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But do gluten-free labels really mean what we think they mean? Here are six myths about gluten-free food products, and the truth behind our assumptions.

Myth: "Gluten-Free" on a Label Means the Food Contains Zero Gluten

Fact: Foods that are labeled "gluten-free" are allowed to contain a tiny amount of gluten. "Gluten-free" is a legal definition, not a scientific one — it means foods contain less than a certain legal amount of gluten (in the U.S., it's less than 20 parts per million). "Gluten-free," however, does not mean zero gluten, and in fact, most food products labeled "gluten-free" still contain very small amounts of gluten. Does that mean you can still react to foods, even if they're labeled gluten-free? You might — many people do.

Myth: Manufacturers Are Required to Label Foods Gluten-Free if They Don't Contain Gluten

Fact: No, they're not. Gluten-free labeling is completely voluntary for manufacturers — they don't have to use it at all. However, if they do want to add that "gluten-free" tagline, they need to make sure the product in question meets the legal standards for "gluten-free" (see Myth No. 1). That means doing some testing and taking certain steps in the manufacturing process to guard against gluten cross-contamination, and of course, this adds some expense. However, with the popularity of the gluten-free diet surging and many consumers avoiding gluten, quite a few companies are willing to go to the extra expense so that they can legally label products "gluten-free."

Myth: Manufacturers Are Required to Disclose Gluten Ingredients on Food Labels

Fact: This differs depending on what country you're in. In the U.S., manufacturers must disclose ingredients made from wheat, but do not need to disclose ingredients made from the gluten grains barley or rye (although some companies — Kraft Foods is one example — do so voluntarily). In Canada, gluten is considered to be a major allergen, and food manufacturers must indicate any gluten-containing ingredients on their labels. No countries require disclosure of potential gluten cross-contamination, although once again, a few manufacturers do so voluntarily.

Myth: Products Labeled Gluten-Free Can't Contain Ingredients Derived from Wheat, Barley, or Rye

Fact: In many countries, manufacturers can legally label something "gluten-free" even if it contains ingredients derived from gluten grains, as long as the ingredients are processed to remove gluten and as long as the product in question contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Examples of these types of ingredients include wheat starch (used more commonly in baked goods in Europe), wheat grass and barley grass (frequently found in vitamins), ethanol (alcohol commonly derived from gluten grains and used in many different food flavorings), and maltodextrin (often derived from gluten grain sources in Europe, but from non-gluten-grain sources in the U.S.). Although these ingredients may be considered technically free of gluten, many people find they react to them, and some experts (although not all) recommend caution.

Myth: Gluten-Free on the Label Means the Product Wasn't Made in a Facility/Equipment That's Shared With Gluten Grains

Fact: "Gluten-free" on the label promises no such thing. It's perfectly possible for manufacturers to make legal "gluten-free" food products in a shared facility as long as they take a few basic precautions to guard against cross-contamination. It's even possible for companies to make "gluten-free"-labeled products on shared manufacturing lines, although those companies will need to clean quite thoroughly between product runs (to be fair, many companies follow these types of good manufacturing protocols regardless).

Myth: "Wheat-Free" ​Equals "Gluten-Free"

Fact: Products with "wheat-free" on the label should be free of wheat, but likely contain barley or rye — otherwise, the company would label them "gluten-free." "Wheat-free" label notations are helpful for people who suffer from wheat allergy, but unfortunately can be confusing for people who follow a gluten-free diet. Just remember to look for the words "gluten-free," not "wheat-free."

Was this page helpful?