Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It’s a protein that allows things like bread to be chewy, stretchy, and rise nicely. It can also be tasty - like barley malt found in flavorings such as barley and rye in alcohol. Gluten is a common protein found in much of the current American food supply, and is even in hand soap, cosmetics, conditioner, and items like Play-Doh and kid’s craft supplies.
However, some people may be intolerant to this protein, or worse yet - suffer from celiac disease. In those with celiac disease, ingesting gluten can cause long-term intestinal damage. For those with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is serious business. There are also other reasons why some would adopt a gluten-free diet, primarily for health reasons.
Why do people eat gluten-free?
The primary reason why people are gluten free is due to celiac disease. Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease that requires a strict gluten-free diet, completely free of gluten. The gluten-free diet can also be used to alleviate symptoms of some digestive or autoimmune diseases.
Those who have an intolerance to gluten may also eat a gluten-free diet, along with those who have an IgE wheat allergy (however they would be allowed to consume barley or rye). Although going gluten-free can help in so many circumstances there are risks to a gluten-free diet so always research and get tested before making the change.
Read more to understand the differences between food allergies and food intolerances.
What does gluten free mean?
The label gluten-free means that the food is free from a set measurable amount of the protein gluten. Gluten-free food is legally required to be under 20ppm - that’s parts per million - of gluten. This is a safety measure enacted by the FDA to assure that this medically-necessary diet is safe for those with celiac disease.
What can you eat on the gluten-free diet?
Thankfully, there are still many foods that you can eat on a gluten-free diet, including naturally gluten-free grains, meats, fruits and vegetables. You can still have a healthy and delicious diet while gluten free! In fact, many food products now have indicators and the words ‘gluten free’ printed on labels to help those that need to check for gluten contents. Read our guide to gluten food labelling for more help on navigating labels.
The Complete Gluten Free Food List
Instead of wheat, rye, and barley which are loaded with gluten, most gluten-free grain-based products are made with gluten-free grains instead. What grains are gluten free? Many! In fact, this list of commonly used grains might be something you were already eating while on a gluten-containing diet. They are often used in conjunction with a gluten-free starch like tapioca and arrowroot starch (both naturally gluten free).
What about oats? Are oats gluten free?
While oats themselves are safe, they are often co-mingled with gluten grains in the manufacturing process and rendered unsafe. Gluten grains displaced during the growing and manufacturing process can often end up in oat products.
It’s necessary to purchase only gluten free oats, preferably purity protocol oats that are only grown and manufactured with oats - away from wheat and other grains that might accidentally come into the manufacturing process.
Fruits are an important part of any healthy diet, especially those who are gluten free. Fruit, along with vegetables, provide much needed fiber and nutrients for those with celiac. Be sure to check with your physician for a nutrition screening to see what specific nutrients you are deficient in due to celiac disease.
While all fruit is naturally gluten free, always check the ingredients of any processed, fruit-flavored candy, ice cream, thickening agents or filling in your fruit products. Sometimes these items are fruit-flavored with barley malt or other additives that are not just fruit.
Although all raw veg is naturally gluten free, here are a selection that are ideal to help with common vitamin deficiencies among celiac disease sufferers.
When vegetables are served at a restaurant, be diligent on how they are prepared. Some vegetables may be blanched in water that once cooked gluten-containing pasta, or perhaps grilled on the same grill as a burger bun or toast.
Ask for your vegetables to be sauteed in veg oil or butter on a clean pan for the safest way to eat vegetables at a restaurant. As for potatoes, and the very popular way to cook them, make sure that potato wedges, tots, or fries are fried in a dedicated gluten-free frier. They should not be fried with gluten-containing food.
While dairy provides much needed vitamins and minerals that someone with celiac might be deficient in, many celiacs find themselves with a lactose intolerance. Check all non-dairy products for proper vitamins and mineral content.
- Plain Milk
- Most cheeses
- Cottage cheese
- Sour cream
- Plain Yogurt
Always check ice cream, yogurt, and dairy products for additional ingredients and flavoring that might contain gluten. Be aware that while ice cream products might be gluten free naturally, some specific flavors like cookie dough, or cookies and cream, might include cookie parts made with wheat, other example may include:
- Flavored Milk
- Some bleu cheeses
- Some soy/almond/rice milks
- Beer/lager cheese dips
- Ice cream sandwiches
Meat & fish are a great source of protein for a gluten free diet. Even meat from grain fed animals is safe to eat for those with a gluten sensitivity:
- Red Meat – Beef, Goat, Lamb
- Poultry – Chicken and Turkey
- Pork – Pig's meat
- Seafood –Fish, Crab, Lobster
Most meat isn’t served naturally, it’s often cooked with oils, seasoned with spices, and slathered in sauces. Always ask about additional ingredients used in the marinating and cooking process. Also you may find that some meats contain binders or fillers which are not gluten free. Particularly processed meats may contain these ingredients such as:
- Marinated meats
- Breaded meats
- Meat in TV dinners
- Veggie burgers (meat substitutes)
- Black beans
- Pinto beans
- Baked beans
- Peanuts, pecans, macadamia
Any added sauces, toppings, or glazes might render the food item not gluten free. For example, BBQ beans might contain gluten in the BBQ sauce itself. Candied nuts might contain gluten in the glaze of the nuts. Bagged lentils are often co-mingled with gluten-containing grains and might be more at risk to those with celiac disease. Again, reading ingredients and understanding manufacturing processes is a tedious, but necessary step to the gluten-free diet.
Almost all non-alcoholic beverages are gluten-free. Naturally, most drinks are gluten-free such as:
- Sparkling water
- Sports/energy drinks
Some manufacturers use barley malt for flavor or coloring. It’s always important to check the label, especially with flavored teas, flavored waters, or handcrafted sodas, as many use the term “natural flavors’ which might include barley.
Spices, sauces and condiments are overlooked and are very often the culprit of an accidental celiac exposure.
Err on the side of caution with sauces and condiments, they commonly contain ingredients that contain gluten or trace gluten such as; modified food starch, maltodextrin, malt, and wheat flour which are used generally as emulsifiers, thickeners and flavor enhancers.
Gluten-Free Sauces & Condiments
- Organic sauces
- Apple cider vinegar
- Veg oils & coconut oils
The list is quite small however thankfully, there is a huge market for gluten free sauces & condiments such as these 7 brands to try.
- Some Ketchups (check for stabilizers)
- Malt vinegar
- BBQ sauce
- Pasta sauce jars
- Salad dressings
- Soy sauce
Most Asked Gluten-Free Diet Questions:
Can I be gluten-free and vegan?
Watch out for hidden gluten! Seitan, a common vegan protein, is made from vital wheat gluten - a concentrated protein made out of gluten. Always ask if vegan and vegetarian burgers and mock proteins are gluten free.
Is Alcohol Gluten Free?
All distilled alcohol is gluten free, due to the distillation process. However, any mash or additives added after distillation could be a rare source of gluten. What about beer? Traditional beer is made from barley or wheat, and is not gluten free. However, there are numerous gluten-free beer brands available, made from sorghum, millet, or other gluten-free grains. Is wine gluten-free? Yes, traditional wine has been tested to be gluten free. Be aware of any wine coolers (which aren’t actually wine) or flavored malt beverages, as these are not gluten free.
Is Chocolate Gluten Free? Is Candy Gluten Free?
Sweets and treats are a haven for hidden (or not so hidden) gluten. While chocolate may be gluten free, anything added to the chocolate might be unsafe. Watch out for chocolate with barley malt, or chocolate with candy inside that is not safe, like malted milk balls. Other candy like mints, sour candy or taffy may contain flavoring made with barley or wheat glucose syrup. Read every label and don’t assume any candy is safe.
Are Pastries Gluten Free?
Plenty of gluten free breads, cakes, cookies and pastries are available at major grocery stores, natural food stores, and online. Compared to even 10 years ago the selection of safe gluten free food available is massive. The gluten free food market has seen exponential growth from both small mom and pop businesses to huge manufacturers. With celiac disease being so common, food brands are starting to understand the profitability of serving the gluten free market.
Why do gluten-free products have more calories?
Gluten-free foods are historically more calorically-dense than their gluten-full counterparts. Because in the past gluten-free foods did not have the texture or taste of their counterparts, they often used excess sugar or fat to make them more palatable. It’s important to eat a healthy diet, regardless of gluten, to make sure
Why are gluten-free products so expensive?
These substitutes, however, are often more expensive. This is because of the ingredient cost of the gluten free grains, gluten free certifications, distribution and marketing needed to get a product onto store shelves.
The gluten-free diet has come so far, so quickly. Even in the early 2000’s, it was hard to find even gluten-free staple items at grocery stores - products had to be ordered by mail or online. Now, for any gluten-containing item, there are gluten free brands that can produce the item safely. Over the years, we have nationwide gluten-free products like ravioli, donuts, croissants, puff pastry, bagels, mock “rye” bread and more. It’s truly the best time to be gluten-free.
If you’re considering adopting a gluten-free diet, be sure to test yourself for celiac disease first. You’ll need to still eat a gluten-containing diet for the serology (blood) screening test and the follow-up endoscopy and biopsy in order for your celiac disease results to be accurate.
Do not start a gluten-free diet until you have been screened and tested for celiac disease, under the care of a celiac knowledgeable gastroenterologist.
imaware thanks Beyond Celiac for advancing celiac disease research.