Hidden Sources of Gluten and How to Find Them!

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Dietitian Tiffany Torok, MA, RDN discusses Hidden Sources of Gluten and Where to Find Them. If you or a family member were recently diagnosed with Celiac Disease or Gluten Intolerance, you know how overwhelming the first year is without gluten. This article gives practical tips on not only how to how to cope but how to thrive!

Woman saying no to eating a hamburger

Why are hidden sources of gluten everywhere and what to look out for?

So, you find out you have celiac disease, and you think, “Great! I have to eat gluten-free; it can’t be that hard, right?”

But the problem isn’t so much in avoiding the obvious sources of gluten that are made from wheat, rye, or barley, like breads, pasta, and other baked goods.

The hardest part of following a strict gluten-free diet to treat celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity is avoiding the hidden sources of gluten.

  • This is because gluten, a protein complex found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats that come in cross-contact with these grains during production, is commonly used as a stabler, emulsifier, filler, binder, and protein replacement in most processed, manufactured foods in our grocery stores.
  • Gluten is also found in non-food items such as personal care products (Day, et al., 2006).
  • Making matters more confusing, gluten is not technically one of the top 8 allergens and, therefore, does not need to be disclosed on a food label if it is sourced from rye or barley.
  • Additionally, gluten-free foods that choose to label themselves as gluten-free on the food labels are required to be tested at 20 ppm (20 parts per million) of gluten, so many manufacturers don’t feel that is a necessary step due to the costs associated with rebranding their products.
  • Gluten is so pervasive in our modern food system, that it can be found in everything from deli meats or lip balm.

Top Three Tips for Avoiding Hidden Sources of Gluten

  • One of the best ways to avoid hidden gluten is to purchase foods from food manufacturers that have obtained one of the gluten-free certifications. This can lessen your gluten exposure by limiting the amount of cross-contamination with traces of gluten that the naturally occurring gluten-free grains come into contact with.
  • Always read the product labels to see if the item is listed as “gluten-free” to ensure that the food products are tested to contain 20 ppm of gluten.
  • Be an ingredients list sleuth to find common names that gluten can be called such as modified food starch, dextrin, maltodextrin, malt syrup, caramel coloring, natural flavoring, etc.
  • Preventing Kitchen Cross Contamination– Don’t forget that the most important place for you to safeguard yourself against gluten exposure from traces of gluten is in your own kitchen. Read more here on how to create a celiac safe kitchen in your home!
Hidden Sources of Gluten in Medications

Gluten in Medications and Supplements Fillers

  1. One of the most significant sources of hidden gluten in medications and dietary supplements is the fillers, which are usually starches such as rice, corn, or wheat starch. These fillers are used to add bulk, absorb water, or act as lubricants.
  2. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling undisclosed gluten in medications; however, if the manufacturer has a gluten-free label, they are subject to having their product tested to be 20 ppm (20 parts per million) of gluten. These fillers may be labeled as dextrins, starches, modified food starch, maltodextrin, or sodium starch glycolate.
  3. Thankfully, more and more manufacturers are stating the source of the starch such as corn, potato, rice, or wheat to help you better identify those that are unsafe, but that does not mean that they are safe from cross-contact (7).

TIP – Always ask your pharmacist if the medication is gluten-free.

Gluten Can Hide in Personal Care Products

Gluten can also be hiding in beauty products as well. The concern is for the products that can be ingested such as lip stick, lip balms, and hand lotions. The peptides in gluten can be used for firming and moisturizing so caution needs to be used when using these cosmetic products Additionally, non gluten-free oats are commonly used in lotions and other skincare products. A search on sephora.com or ulta.com will reveal numerous gluten-free beauty products.

Hidden Sources of Gluten in Processed Meats

Wheat gluten can be turned into a textured vegetable protein, although technically it is not a vegetable, and used as a filler and extenders to reduce the cost of many meat products including chicken nuggets, ground beef products, and deli meat. This same product is used to make some meatless products such as veggie burgers and other vegan alternatives such as seitan. Additionally, gluten is found in imitation fish, especially imitation crab (1, 2).

If the product is not labeled gluten-free and does not mention the source of textured protein, use caution and contact the manufacturer.

TIP– However, all meats that have not undergone any processing except for being butchered and/or ground are naturally gluten free.

Gluten cross contamination in toasters Hand Popping toast

Hidden Sources of Gluten in Naturally occurring gluten-free grains, seeds and nuts

A recent study found that 32% of natural gluten-free grains were contaminated with 20 ppm of gluten. Additionally, the same study found that five out of eight labeled cereals contained higher that the threshold of hidden gluten to cause damage to the small intestine.

The study concludes that buying certified gluten-free products is the safest way to stay compliant to the gluten-free diet for people with a gluten intolerance, either celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (3).

Eggs in Restaurants

Believe it or not, but at least one major chain restaurant puts pancake batter in their omelets to make them more fluffy so always ask before ordering an egg dish when you are out to breakfast. One way to avoid this issue if you are out to eat is to request whole eggs such as poached or fried or egg whites cooked in a separate skillet.

Hidden Gluten in Alcoholic Beverages

  1. There are many alcoholic beverages that are made with barley malt or wheat malt and thus contain gluten, such as wine coolers, beer, and other malt beverages. While there are gluten-free alternative such as hard ciders, hard seltzers, and gluten-free beers made with sorghum, brown rice, and millet, the beers that have been “deglutenized” are not considered gluten-free according to the Food and Drug Administration (4, 6).
  2. Although the distillation process renders alcohol, even alcohol made from gluten-containing grains, gluten-free, some grain alcohols use caramel coloring, which can contain gluten, and/or add back in some of the grain mash into the liquor, rendering them contaminated with gluten (6). If you purchase alcoholic beverages, consider gluten-free versions made from non-gluten grains.
  3. There are many vodkas made from non-glutinous grains such as Tito’s or Chopin Vodka.
  4. TIP -Gluten-free alcoholic beverages include wine and hard ciders made from apples, pear, or other fruit that are labeled gluten-free. All wines, including brandy, champagne, cognac, port wine, sherry, and vermouth are considered safe.

Cross Contact Gluten in Pizza and French Fries

  • Another source of hidden gluten is in cross-contact that occurs when otherwise gluten-free foods come into contact with gluten-containing foods during preparation at restaurants or during production at a manufacturing facility.
  • A few major foods to look out for when dining out are gluten-free pizza made in the same oven as regular pizza, French Fries, and other fried foods that have been fried in the same frier.
  • Additionally, fried foods including French Fries can have a batter on them that is made with gluten. Another source of hidden gluten can be convenience processed foods. This is because of their need for stabilizers, extenders, fillers, and flavor enhancers.
  • TIP – When ordering out always ask if the food is gluten-free and/or is it being prepared in the same pan as gluten containing food.

People on beach eating salad

Are Condiments Gluten-Free?

Many condiments can have hidden gluten-containing ingredients such as modified food starch, malt syrup, malt extract, malt flavoring, caramel color, artificial flavor, dextrin, and natural flavoring. See the list below for common things to look out for:

  • Soy Sauce – gluten is used in most soy sauce as an extender and to make MSG (1). Additionally, soy sauce is used for other sauces, such as peanut sauce and teriyaki sauce. Soy sauce is also used as part of marinades for many meat products both commercially and in restaurants. For gluten-free options, choose gluten-free tamari or coconut aminos.
  • Salad Dressings – Common sources of gluten in salad dressings are malt vinegar, food starches used as stabilizers or thickening agents, wheat protein used as an extender, and lipoproteins used as emulsifiers (5).
  • Vinegar – while most vinegar are naturally gluten-free, the vinegar to watch out for when you are following a strict gluten-free diet is malt vinegar, which is not gluten-free.
  • Gravy – gluten ingredients in gravies are used as a thickening agent and can commonly be listed on the ingredients label as wheat flour or modified food starch.
  • Broth/Stock – broth, stock, or bouillon cubes can all contain gluten depending on if they use a thickening agent or if wheat gluten is used to make MSG.
  • Cooking Spray – while there seems to be some controversy surrounding cooking sprays and whether they contain gluten, they do not appear to utilize any gluten-containing ingredients as this would interfere with oil’s natural fatty properties. However, if you are following a strict gluten-free diet, purchase cooking sprays labeled gluten-free or make your homemade olive oil spray.
  • Spices and Blends – Spices and spice blends can become contaminated with a small amount of gluten during production, and gluten can be used as an extender, filler, or anti-caking agent. Purchasing a spice product that lists one ingredient on the label (for example, Basil) can help reduce the risk of accidental gluten exposure, as will purchasing gluten-free spices and gluten-free spice blends.
  • Soups – Soups can contain gluten, as cooks use flour to thicken them. Some spice blends in the soup might not be gluten-free. They can also contain numerous hidden sources of gluten at every step of the ingredient process. Look for soups that have a gluten-free label. Another idea is to make homemade soup using gluten-free ingredients.

Cheese

There are two things to look out for when looking for hidden sources of gluten in cheese. The first is in pre-shredded cheese and if there is an anti-caking agent used, typically labeled as a starch or modified starch, either wheat starch or sourced from another grain. While most cheeses use rice or potato starch now, it is still helpful to continue to read ingredients lists to look for these code words. Additionally, bleu cheese or any of the molded cheeses can use bread as a molding agent so it is helpful to find the source of the mold prior to purchase.

Gluten Free Sign with flour

Notes From Sherie

When you start a gluten-free diet it takes time to become comfortable with all the ins and outs. Give yourself space to figure it out. I found googling foods I liked to eat as well as searching for gluten-free options in Instacart, online at Trader Joes, Costco and my local grocer was helpful. Everything I normally ate or drank I looked for gluten-free alternatives. There are many Facebook groups which can also provide enormous support as well as a gluten-free Community! The motivator for me was that my lifelong health issues resolved, and I now thrive on a gluten-free diet. It’s never been an easier time to be gluten-free.

I started this website to provide recipes, education and inspiration! Please reach out if you have questions. I respond to every email.

I hope you found this article: Hidden Sources of Gluten and How to Find Them helpful. For more Gluten-Free Recipes and Gluten Resources sign up for our weekly newsletter!

References

1. L. Day, M.A. Augustin, I.L. Batey, C.W. Wrigley. Wheat-gluten uses and industry needs. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 2006. 17(2):82-90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2005.10.003

2. M Yeater, G Casco, R K Miller, C Z Alvarado. Comparative evaluation of texture wheat ingredients and soy proteins in the quality and acceptability of emulsified chicken nuggets. Poultry Science, 2017; 96(2):4430-4438. https://doi.org/10.3382/ps/pex250

3. Wieser H, Segura V, Ruiz-Carnicer Á, Sousa C, Comino I. Food Safety and Cross-Contamination of Gluten-Free Products: A Narrative Review. Nutrients. 2021; 13(7):2244. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13072244

4. Gumienna, M., Górna, B. Gluten hypersensitivities and their impact on the production of gluten-free beer. Eur Food Res Technol 246, 2147–2160 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-020-03579-9

5. García-Casal, M.N., Peña-Rosas, J.P. and Malavé, H.G. (2016), Sauces, spices, and condiments: definitions, potential benefits, consumption patterns, and global markets. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1379: 3-16. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13045

6. Bustamante MA, Simón E. Gluten-Free Spirits and Drinks. In Arranz E,Fernández-Bañares F, Rosell CM, Rodrigo L, Peña AS, editors. Advancesin the Understanding of Gluten Related Pathology and the Evolution ofGluten-Free Foods. Barcelona, Spain: OmniaScience; 2015. p. 645-673. http://dx.doi.org/10.3926/oms.267

7. Karen H. Hlywiak. (2008). Celiac Disease: A Comprehensive Review and Update, Series #2, Hidden Sources of Gluten. Practical Gastroenterology. 27-39. https://www.ficomputing.net/pdf/September08/HlywiakArticle.pdf

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