Celiac Support Association

Label Reading 101

Label Reading
Label reading is an essential skill in following a gluten-free diet. The term “gluten” is rarely seen as an ingredient on product labels. A person on a gluten-free diet learns the typical places gluten can hide. The label reading habit builds confidence to make informed choices. When reading labels, search for ingredients containing Wheat, Barley, Rye and Oats (WBRO) or their crosses or derivatives.

Label reading is an ongoing habit. Product manufacturers can change ingredients or sources of ingredients at any time. Just because your favorite brand of ketchup was gluten-free 6 months ago, does not mean the ingredients on the new bottle remain free of wheat, barley, rye, oats, their crosses and derivatives today. Your best defense for risk-free choices is. 

ALWAYS CHECK THE LABEL.  No matter how often you have purchased the item. 

Order the CSA Product Listing - a helpful guide to those living gluten-free!

Reading Labels

LABEL READING  WHEAT—genus Triticum--as a major allergen is required to be listed, if present in an FDA regulated product. Barley and Rye are not required to be listed by there source name on a food label. Gluten-free may appear on a label of a product that meets the requirements of the FDA Gluten-free definition.

A-LABEL READING  WHEAT—genus Triticum- Wheat and its derivatives are the most common ingredients eliminated in the celiac diet. Almost any product made from flour has wheat flour as a base. Obvious examples include breads, cakes, cookies, bagels, crackers, pasta and many cereals. Wheat flours and starches are also excellent thickeners and binders and are often found in sauces (including soy sauce), gravies, soups, cornbread mixes, dairy products like sour cream, cottage cheese and yogurt, and processed meats like sausage, hot dogs, lunch meats and broth injected poultry.

There are many varieties and names for wheat including bulgur, couscous, dinkle, durum, einkorn, emmer, Farina®, fu, graham, kamut, seitan, semolina, and spelt. Other common wheat products include wheat berry, wheat germ, wheat germ oil, wheat grass (also called triga), wheat gluten, wheat nut and wheat starch. Common ingredients and additives made from wheat include edible starch, food starch and glue.

Label reading for wheat has become somewhat easier since the passage of FALCPA (Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004). The law requires that if a product contains any of the 8 major allergens, the allergen(s) must be listed on the product label by their common name. The allergen listing may appear either within the ingredient list or following the ingredient list in a “contains ___” statement. The 8 major food allergens that must be listed are: milk, egg, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, WHEAT, peanuts and soybeans. FALCPA covers all packaged foods sold in the U.S. that are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, including both domestically manufactured and imported foods. FDA regulates all foods except meat products, poultry products and egg products. Meat, poultry and eggs are regulated by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Raw agricultural commodities such as fresh fruits and vegetables in their natural state are not affected by FALCPA. (Raw fruits and vegetables in their natural state are naturally gluten-free). Compliance with this law is not yet perfect. Cross contamination potential is not consistently conveyed on labels.

Basically this means that if a packaged food contains any type of wheat or a derivative of wheat (like flour or starch) the word wheat will appear on the label. Previously, a cake mix might list “flour” as an ingredient; now it must list “wheat flour” or “enriched flour from wheat. . . . . “as an ingredient. If a product contains wheat starch, it must be labeled as such.

Note: Manufacturers may not always list sources of highly processed additives or ingredients. FALCPA labeling requirements have been of great assistance in finding wheat within a product. However, FALCPA DOES NOT REQUIRE THE LISTING OF BARLEY, RYE OR OATS or their derivatives in product labeling. Remember that wheat-free does not necessarily mean “gluten-free”. The product can still contain barley,
rye and/or oats!

Barley is not often used as a flour in baked goods, but can be used as a thickener in soups and stews. Barley can appear in the form of pearl barley and hulled barley.
Barley is most commonly used as a flavoring and flavor enhancement ingredient in a wide variety of foods. MALT is the most common barley ingredient. If a label lists “malt” it is made from barley unless otherwise specified. Barley extract (barley syrup), barley flavoring, barley enzymes and maltose (malt sugar) are also commonly used as ingredients. Common foods containing barley and malt are: cereals, malted milk, malt vinegar, and beer. Watch for barley in rice milks and syrups (especially brown rice syrup), sauces, soups, cereals, protein bars and snack foods.

Rye is a less common ingredient than wheat or barley. Rye has been cross bred with wheat to form a hybrid— Triticale. Rye is most commonly found in bakery items (like breads and crackers which also contain wheat) and rye whiskey.

Oats can be used as flour or in various forms—rolled, steel cut, Irish steel cut, oatmeal, instant oatmeal. Whole grain oats are known as oat berries. Oats are commonly used in hot and cold cereals, desserts, granola bars, snack foods, bakery items, and as a thickening/bulking agent. Oat fiber can be found in some supplements. Oats can be added to products to improve nutritional value. Oats can also be found in cosmetics and soaps. Frequently, in cosmetics and soaps, oats will be designated with its scientific name, Avena sativa. For further information on oats in a celiac diet see the section entitled, REVIEW ON OATS.

Here are just a few of the possible sources of gluten in common grocery items. These items in the ingredient list may necessitate a call to the manufacturer to determine the source of the ingredient or additive. For a more detailed list of ingredients and additives, see the GLOSSARY OF TERMS.
Modified food starch—can be made from corn, tapioca, potato, WHEAT or other sources. Corn is almost always the source in North America with potato and rice occasionally used. Wheat-based ingredients are required to be listed as such by FALCPA.
“Starch” on the label of a United States product means cornstarch and is acceptable for a gluten-free diet.
Caramel color—can be made from BARLEY or WBRO grain products, but is usually made from coal by- products
Dextrin—can be made from WHEAT. Wheat-based ingredients are required to be listed as such by FALCPA.
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein/hydrolyzed plant protein/textured vegetable protein—could contain protein obtained from wheat. Most is made from soy, corn or peanut and label will specify. Wheat-based ingredients are required to be listed as such by FALCPA.
Maltodextrin—US products are made from corn, potato or rice but some foreign maltodextrins can be made from wheat starch. Wheat-based ingredients are required to be listed as such by FALCPA.
Vinegars—balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, rice wine vinegar, wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar are naturally gluten-free. Malt vinegar is derived from barley and is not part of a gluten-free diet. Distilled white vinegar can be made from grapes, corn, wheat, or other sources. Use of the term “vinegar” in an ingredient statement can indicate either apple cider vinegar or vinegar from a variety of sources. (See the GLOSSARY OF TERMS for more information.)

Specialty grocers and natural food stores are often a good source of gluten-free foods. They also may provide many certified organic foods. But please remember that organic does not necessarily mean gluten-free. Naturally gluten-free foods produced organically are, or course, gluten-free. But organic baked goods and processed foods may contain WBRO. Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic” a government approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards. Companies handling or processing organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must also be certified. Organic refers to methods and practices, not quality. Packaged organic foods are subject to FALCPA labeling regulations for allergens and must list wheat. If a product is labeled organic, CHECK THE INGREDIENT LIST TO SEE IF IT IS GLUTEN-FREE.

Gluten can also be found in cosmetics, lotions, personal care products and envelope glues. Opinions vary on the appropriateness of WBRO products on skin and hair. Although gluten molecules are considered too large to be absorbed through the skin, inadvertent hand to mouth exposure can cause gluten to enter the digestive system and result in an immune response. In some cases, these products will list wheat, barley, rye and/or oats ingredients by their scientific names, and may or may not list the common name for the grain. For reference, here are some common uses of WBRO grains and their scientific names.

Ingredients that have been derived from wheat, barley, rye or oats that are “specially processed to remove gluten” may be found on products labeled gluten-free. The labeling definitions from both the Codex Alimentarius Commission (in force) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (as proposed) allow such ingredients to be used as long as the final product does not test above 20 parts per million. (See A PRIMER ON GLUTEN AND GLUTEN-FREE for further information.) Thus a product bearing a gluten-free designation may list an ingredient containing wheat--e.g. wheat starch. Products with ingredients “specially processed to remove gluten” may or may not meet the gluten-free definition you use to manage your celiac diet.

Some companies indicate that they have “full disclosure” on their labeling. This means that the sources of ingredients will be listed, especially if they are gluten-containing sources. Kraft is one company that practices full disclosure labeling.

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