How to Read Food Labels for a Gluten-Free Diet

If you’re gluten-free, it’s helpful to know how to read food labels to ensure that you steer clear of allergens while embracing the many foods you can eat. Use this guide to learn how to master gluten-free food labels.

woman at a countertop that has cupcakes, kale chips, and a glass of champagne on it

Going gluten-free for any reason can feel a little overwhelming at first. You may be wondering how you’re going to avoid gluten when grocery shopping or eating at a restaurant. The good news is that more and more, there are excellent gluten-free options everywhere you look. To get started, check out my list of everything you CAN eat on a gluten-free diet.

While I’m not a doctor, and you should always consult with a medical professional before making any major dietary changes, I do have plenty of experience grocery shopping for gluten-free goods, including for kids. That’s why I’ve put together this guide to reading food labels specifically for gluten-free diets. Use these tips to navigate the grocery store with confidence, and before you know it, you’ll be a gluten-free shopping pro!

How to Immediately Tell if a Product Contains Gluten

In some cases, it can be tricky to figure out if a product contains gluten or not based on the food label alone. But some items come with a clear and very helpful label.

Labels Indicating What You Can Eat on a Gluten-Free Diet

Unless you have other allergies, you CAN enjoy any items with the following labels:

  • Certified Gluten Free: To earn this label, the FDA requires an independent, third-party certification to prove that the food contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
  • Gluten-Free: It’s important to note that this label is not regulated by the FDA or any oversight body. Foods that are naturally gluten-free or don’t have any gluten-containing ingredients can carry this label. In addition, foods with less than 20 ppm of gluten, but that haven’t been verified by 3rd-party testing, can use this label. In some cases, companies use this phrase purely for marketing by putting it on naturally gluten-free foods like produce or water.

Other regulatory parties that may be highlighted on a gluten-free food label include:

  • The Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) tests that foods contain less than 10 ppm of gluten.
  • BRCGS Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP) tests for gluten and cross-contamination.
  • NSF International offers a third-party certification for gluten and many other ingredients.

Food Labels to Avoid

Steer clear of any foods with the following phrases on their labels. Note that sometimes these warnings are printed in small font on the back of a package:

  • Contains wheat
  • May contain traces of wheat
  • Made on shared equipment with wheat ingredients

Food Labels to Be Wary Of if you’re Gluten-Free

Depending on the level of your sensitivity to gluten, you may or may not be able to eat items with the following food labels:

  • Manufactured in a facility that also processes wheat ingredients
  • Wheat-free: These items may contain other forms of wheat, like spelt, or gluten-containing grains like barley and rye.

When in doubt, always ask your healthcare provider.

Gluten-Containing Ingredients to Avoid on a Food Label

There are a few common ingredients in packaged foods that you should always avoid on a gluten-free diet. Some of these items are other names for wheat. Others are names for gluten-containing grains (or derived from those grains).

Skip any items with the following ingredients on their food labels:

  • Wheat (bran, starch, germ, or berries)
  • Hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • Wheat starch/modified wheat starch
  • Rye (kernels, berries)
  • Barley (malt, extract)
  • Bulgur
  • Orzo
  • Kamut
  • Semolina
  • Malt (syrup, vinegar, extract) or maltodextrin
  • Farro
  • Einkorn
  • Panko
  • Seitan
  • Graham
  • Bran
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Matzo (meal)
  • Beer/ale/lager

Possible Sources of Gluten

In addition to the foods we know contain gluten protein, there are also some ingredients that may be hiding gluten on their food labels. Again, depending on your sensitivity to gluten, you may or may not be able to tolerate these ingredients.

If you don’t have to worry about cross-contamination or trace amounts of gluten, then these items may be just fine for you. However, if you have celiac disease or a severe intolerance, then avoid these foods unless they’re certified gluten-free.

Tip: Look out for the phrases “natural flavoring” and “modified food starch”. They may contain a gluten ingredient. Manufacturers are not required to list the components of these catch-all ingredients.

  • Caramel color/flavor. This is often made from barley.
  • Dextrins
  • Enzymes
  • Glycerides, diglycerides
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Modified food starch
  • Natural flavoring, fillers, and juices
  • Oats/oatmeal/oat bran. These have a high risk of cross-contamination.
  • Rice syrup
  • Soy sauce, which is often made from wheat.

Ready-To-Eat Food that May Contain Gluten

When you’re buying pre-made food or snacks, the gluten can get sneaky. It’s always best to carefully read the label for allergy warnings or certifications. I’ve also written a helpful guide on foods that contain gluten for more details.

When in doubt, consult the ingredient list for any of the ingredients listed above. Unfortunately, in some cases, the only way to be 100% sure is to contact the manufacturing company directly.

  • Cakes, cookies, bread, and pasta. These are the obvious sources of gluten unless they are specifically made with gluten-free ingredients. Usually, this is very clear on the food label.
  • Canned soups, broths, and soup bases. These can contain wheat-based thickeners.
  • Cereal. Even if they’re corn-, oat-, or rice-based, they may have hidden gluten ingredients.
  • Candy, chocolate, and chocolate bars. Especially if they have mix-ins or flavoring added.
  • Extracts. Most are fine, but check for additives. Also check that the alcohol isn’t wheat-based.
  • Flavored coffee and tea
  • Granola bars and energy bars. Even those without wheat often use non-gluten-free oats.
  • Meat substitutes like seitan and veggie burgers. Many of these contain wheat.
  • Processed meats. Check your deli meats, hot dogs, sausages, prepackaged hamburgers, prepared meatballs, and seasoned or marinated meat for fillers and other additives, including breadcrumbs and bread-based binders.
  • Salad dressings, sauces, marinades, gravy. These may contain soy sauce or thickeners.
  • Seasoning mixes. Individual dried herbs and spices are typically fine, but spice blends or seasoning mixesmay have gluten-containing ingredients added.
  • Tortillas and tortilla chips. Corn products are usually fine, but check “multi-grain” products.
bowls of potatoes, cheese, broccoli, spices, and eggs

Cooking Gluten-Free at Home

Fortunately, when you prepare your meals at home, you can rest assured that every bite is gluten-free and just how you like it. Start gluten-free cooking with these family favorites: