How to Identify and Avoid Hidden Gluten
Whether you’re eating gluten-free because you have an autoimmune disease, or because you have a gluten sensitivity, staying strictly gluten-free can be an important but difficult task.
Gluten can be hiding in far more foods than you may expect. And to be successful in this lifestyle, you need to be vigilant regarding everything you put into your mouth, not just the obvious offenders like bread and pasta.
I’ve been gluten-free for over eight years at this point. And while I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way, I’ve learned so much in my gluten-free journey that I want to share with you!
The truth is, gluten is inexpensive and readily available. Which makes it easy and common for many food manufacturers to use it in products that you’d least expect.
Gluten can act as a filler, a binder, or a thickener, and can be hiding in the most seemingly innocent food items.
If you’re navigating a new Celiac Disease or another autoimmune diagnosis, or if you’re just trying to cut gluten out to see if it bothers you, you’ll want to read this post!
I’m going to share the most common foods that contain hidden gluten, and give you my best tips and tricks for avoiding them and staying truly gluten-free.
Whether you’re new to the gluten-free lifestyle, or if you’ve been avoiding gluten for a while but not feeling any better, learning about these common sources of hidden gluten can be instrumental in your healing journey.
Common Sources of Hidden Gluten
Gone are the days of just avoiding bread, cereal, and pasta if you need to eat gluten-free.
Many processed foods contain gluten for a variety of reasons. And, unfortunately for those of us who need to strictly avoid gluten for health reasons, this can certainly complicate our lives a bit.
But, not to fear! Here is a short compilation of some of the most common foods that can contain hidden gluten.
This is not an all-inclusive list by any means. Your best bet for avoiding gluten is to thoroughly read the ingredient list each and every time you purchase a product. And if you’re still uncertain, contact the manufacturer with any questions regarding an item’s ingredients.
Gluten Hides in Candy
I’m not going to lie, this was one of the saddest realizations when I first made the permanent switch to eating gluten-free.
Some candy can contain hidden gluten.
In most candies, gluten is used as a binder to hold the other ingredients together, or to keep the candy from sticking together in the packaging.
Occasionally, a candy might not contain gluten, but still isn’t considered gluten-free because it’s manufactured on shared equipment along with gluten-containing foods.
The most popular candies that contain hidden gluten are:
Reese’s Seasonal Shapes (like the pumpkins and the trees, but not the standard Reese’s cups)
Original Milky Way
Kit Kat Bars
Cadbury Creme Eggs
Again, there are far more candies that contain gluten than I could list here. In the fall every year, a gluten-free candy list usually pops up somewhere online.
For 2019, I’d recommend checking out this list. But you’ll be safest reading the ingredient list and visiting the company’s website or calling them directly to verify the gluten content of any candy.
Gluten Hides in Condiments
If you think just forgoing the bun at your next picnic will keep you safe from gluten, don’t be so certain. Condiments can also be common sources of hidden gluten.
When it comes to most condiments, gluten is often used as an inexpensive way to thicken the final product. And in others, the source of hidden gluten can come from the vinegar that’s used.
If the label reads “vinegar,” it’s not derived from a gluten-containing grain. But if the label reads “malt-vinegar” that specific vinegar is derived from the gluten-containing grain, barley, and isn’t safe for those following a gluten-free diet.
Here is a list of condiments that you’ll want to diligently check the ingredients of whenever you use or purchase them:
The most common offenders out of all the potentially not gluten-free condiments are Worcestershire Sauce and Soy Sauce.
Soy Sauce is often made from far more than soybeans, and (I’d argue) all conventional soy sauces contain wheat.
Your best bet is to use Tamari or Coconut Aminos in place of standard soy sauce if you need to avoid gluten. Both of these products are naturally gluten-free and are great alternatives to regular soy sauce.
And since Worcestershire Sauce often contains both Soy Sauce and some variety of vinegar, it also commonly finds itself on the “not gluten-free list.”
There are some brands that make gluten-free Worcestershire Sauce, but it’s important to verify that your sauce is indeed gluten-free on a case-to-case basis.
Gluten Hides in Soups
Both canned and pre-made soups can also be common sources of hidden gluten.
In soup, gluten is again often used as an inexpensive thickener and can turn the most benign soups into something that must be avoided.
For example, all but five of Campbell’s canned soups contain wheat as a thickener.
Here’s a helpful list (updated in 2019) of many available pre-made soups that are definitely gluten-free.
But remember, companies change ingredients all the time. So an item that used to be gluten-free isn’t guaranteed to be gluten-free the next time you buy it. It’s important to get into the habit of reading and becoming familiar with the ingredient labels of the products you commonly buy.
This may seem unnecessary and time-consuming, but it’s the best way to keep from ingesting gluten accidentally.
Gluten Hides in Flavored Teas
If you know me you know that I live for a good herbal tea at the end of the day. But unfortunately, even teas aren’t immune to the dangers of hidden gluten.
Some tea blends will contain barley malt, derived from a gluten-containing grain, to give the tea a sweeter taste. Also, it’s possible that some tea bags are sealed with an adhesive that contains gluten.
Checking the ingredient list is a simple way to determine if a tea blend actually contains gluten. And if the tea only contains a single ingredient, like an herbal peppermint tea, or a black tea, it’s most likely safe.
But figuring out if a tea bag is sealed with gluten is another, more difficult, task. It is, however, uncommon for tea bags to contain gluten, but it isn’t impossible.
As always, your safest bet is to contact the company of the tea in question, and they will be able to tell you which of their products are indeed gluten-free.
Gluten Hides in Processed Meats
Finally, gluten commonly hides in a plethora of processed meat products.
Gluten can commonly be used as a binding agent in many ground meats like sausages, or meatballs. And breadcrumbs made from wheat are often added to pre-made hamburgers and meatloaf.
It’s also very common for some seafood products to actually not be made of seafood, but out of gluten-containing ingredients only pretending to be seafood.
This “imitation seafood” is common in things like sushi, crab cakes, and seafood salads. And while it may taste like more expensive types of seafood, it’s often made with cheaper cuts of fish and gluten-containing grains.
When trying to avoid hidden gluten in processed meats, it’s important to look for products that contain only the meat product you’re trying to purchase. For example, a burger made with “100% ground beef” or crab meat made with “100% crab” will not contain any hidden gluten.
Again, reading ingredient labels is critical in avoiding hidden gluten in processed meats. And if you’re ever uncertain, err on the side of caution or contact the company directly.
How to Spot Gluten in the Ingredient List
Now that we’ve gone over the most common food items that contain hidden gluten, it’s important to understand how to identify gluten in an ingredient list.
When gluten is listed distinctly as a gluten-containing grain (like wheat, barley, or spelt) it’s easy to spot on an ingredient list.
But, hidden gluten will be just that, hidden. You won’t be able to easily identify it unless you know what you’re looking for.
Most products will contain an FDA required allergen statement if wheat is included in the ingredients.
But wheat is only one form of gluten. So you can’t be certain that there aren’t other forms of gluten in the item even if it lacks the “contains wheat” allergen statement.
This is where the ability to identify common ingredients that can contain hidden gluten comes in.
The list of ingredients that may contain hidden gluten is quite long. Here is a great resource that lists out many of them.
Most commonly, gluten can hide in ingredients like “natural flavors” and “spices.” Companies aren’t required to list what exactly is in these ingredients under the guise of keeping the item’s recipe secret, but it definitely makes identifying hidden gluten difficult.
How to Know if an Item is Really Gluten-Free
With all of the uncertainty around being able to identify hidden gluten in food items, it’s important to be able to identify products that are actually gluten-free.
There are currently several certifications that manufacturers of food products can obtain to guarantee that their product is indeed gluten-free.
You’ll want to look for one of these three labels to ensure that what you’re buying is guaranteed to be gluten-free. And of course, it’s perfectly fine to buy an item that doesn’t contain a certified gluten-free label, you just cannot be 100% sure that it’s ingredients are safe and free of gluten.
When a product carries a gluten-free certification it means that the manufacturer has paid to have that particular product batch tested for gluten.
Most certifications require that the product contains under 20ppm of gluten. While the stricter certification from the Celiac Support Association only certify an item if it contains under 5ppm of gluten and if it contains no oats (which are often contaminated with gluten).
An item that has passed these stringent gluten tests will display the following label, or something similar.
Once you see a label that ensures a product is gluten-free, eat it to your heart’s content.
Some products will only state the words “gluten-free” but won’t display a certified gluten-free label. If this is the case, the product hasn’t been tested for gluten, but the manufacturer has identified that it was made with no gluten-containing ingredients.
You’ll have to determine, based on your need to avoid gluten, if you want to consume products that state they’re gluten-free, but haven’t passed the rigorous testing.
The Bottom Line
Avoiding gluten isn’t just as simple as avoiding the obvious offenders like bread and pasta.
Learning how to strategically read ingredient labels and understand where gluten can be hiding is important to living successfully without gluten.
And while this may seem cumbersome and frustrating when first starting out, over time you’ll become more comfortable in quickly identifying hidden gluten and not need to spend as much time studying labels.
Like with any change made to better your health and well being, being able to successfully identifying gluten-free items may take time. It’s important not to beat yourself up over any mistakes you make while you’re learning.
Once you become an expert at gluten-free label reading, you’ll be able to enjoy a wider variety of foods without fear of them setting you back on your healing journey!