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Although learning how to read food labels isn’t the most EXCITING thing to learn about, it really is an important step in adapting to a new lifestyle of healthy eating. This post will mainly talk about reading labels to avoid gluten. It won’t take long before you can spot gluten like an eagle-eye pro!
Unprocessed vs. Less processed vs. Highly Processed Foods
Less Processed Food
Highly Processed Food
So, let’s start with what an unprocessed food is. If you have a garden out back, belong to a CSA, or shop at a farmers market, it is highly likely that there will not have been any alterations done to your food and there is no gluten (unless you’re growing wheat, barley or rye). Hands down, this is the best way to eat.
However, most of us don’t have the time to grow and store ALL of our own food. Even if you belong to a CSA or shop at a farmers market, you probably will still shop at your grocery store in order to supplement what you can find there. (If not, that’s awesome!)
Moving on to the less processed food at the grocery store. These foods are typically found on the outside aisles of the grocery store. Fruits and vegetables usually greet you as you walk in. Again, all fruits and vegetables are inherently gluten free.
I call these less processed because unfortunately, even these “natural” foods – like apples, bananas, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes are usually coated in wax.
Along the back of the store is the meat department. The raw meat is all inherently gluten free as well, but if it has been marinated, it may contain gluten. Eggs are also gluten free and have definitely become a staple in my kitchen.
Dairy products are still considered processed because most of it gets pasteurized. Most plain milk and milk products are gluten free. (Although I don’t recommend dairy as part of a healthy diet, but that’s a post for another day…)
The middle aisles of the grocery store are generally all the highly processed food – meaning that they look nothing like the ingredients they started as. Highly processed food, like cookies and crackers also contains extra chemicals to preserve these items for long amounts of time.
If the item you are buying is processed at all, you need to look at the nutrition label to see what else is in it.
How to Easily Find Gluten Free Items in the Middle Aisles
Although a gluten free lifestyle isn’t just a fad, the food companies are beginning to realize that lots of people are trying it out and starting to capitalize on it. Companies with products that are naturally gluten free are putting large Gluten Free labels right on their packaging.
Currently, companies are not required to label foods as gluten free. On August 5, 2013, there was an FDA ruling that any product labeled “gluten free” had to contain less than 20ppm of the gluten protein in the food. This was deemed to be a “safe” amount of gluten that a person with celiac could tolerate. (Australia currently has a limit of 3 ppm with the increase of the sensitivity of their testing equipment.)
Another way to find gluten free items is to look next to your favorite brands to see if there is a gluten free version as well. In my local grocery stores, they not only have a gluten free part of an aisle, but they also stock gluten free items right next to the gluten-full items.
Keep in mind, though, that these products don’t always fit with the HEALTHY part of a Healthy Gluten Free lifestyle. They are still processed. Sure, Breyers Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream is naturally gluten free and Enjoy Life makes amazing cookies….but neither of them are really all that healthy!
And the Hard Way…..
All products that are processed have an ingredients label underneath of the nutrition facts. At the bottom of the label, it says in bold letters either Allergens or Contains and then a list of the most common allergens.
It’s helpful when a company will tell you if there is Wheat in their product. Right away, you can put it back and you don’t have to read the whole ingredient label.
Sadly, it’s not that easy to pick up something without wheat and know that it’s 100% gluten free.
Gluten is not only found in wheat, but also in barley and rye. It’s really tricky because if an item has barley malt in it, and you either have Celiac disease (where you have an autoimmune reaction to gluten) or just are really sensitive, this can give you a reaction.
When we first went gluten free, I sent my daughter to school with packaged Rice Krispie treats to use when a classmate brought in a birthday treat. I couldn’t understand how every time someone had a birthday, she ended up with allergic shiners (dark circles under her eyes – her telltale sign!). They don’t say wheat on the list of allergens! Finally I figured out that the barley malt was the culprit and we switched treats.
Here are some common ingredients that contain gluten but aren’t listed as wheat:
Modified food starch (can be made from wheat, corn or potato, but not usually labeled)
Maltodextrin (can be made from wheat or corn)
Natural & artificial flavors and colors
Caramel color & flavor
Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
*This list is not extensive*
Here are some foods that have gluten, but are not labeled for wheat:
Candy & gum (dusted with wheat flour)
Dairy (some people have a reaction to dairy from grain fed cows)
Processed / Packaged cheese
Dry roasted nuts & honey roasted nuts
Marinated meats, meats with fillers
Baking Powder (made from wheat or corn)
*This list is not extensive*
Other Foods That You Have to Be Careful Of:
Be aware of foods that are labeled “Made on Shared Equipment” – for example, special occasion candy. Oftentimes companies like Hershey’s have dedicated production lines for their most popular candy that they make year round. Regular Hershey’s Kisses are gluten free because they are only made on one line. However, the other flavors of Hershey’s Kisses have the disclaimer that they are made on shared equipment. Depending on your level of sensitivity, these could affect you.
Eating Food without Labels
Food at restaurants – There are more and more restaurants coming out with gluten friendly menus. What this means is that the ingredients are gluten free, but it could be cooked with the same utensils and pots and pans that gluten-full items are cooked in. Again, depending on your level of sensitivity, this may or may not bother you.
Anything that is fried in a shared fryer – like french fries fried with chicken fingers, is sure to be glutened.
Food made by relatives – We know they mean well, but if you are not living a gluten free lifestyle, it’s easy to miss the “sneaky” gluten that we know is in certain ingredients. They also tend to not remember the cross-contamination effect. For example, even though peanut butter is a gluten free food, if they use a knife to spread peanut butter on bread and then put the knife back into the peanut butter….it’s contaminated.
I know that reading labels sounds like a new “chore” in addition to your current grocery shopping routine. I hear you.
I promise, though, that it gets so much easier over time. Feel free to comment below and ask any questions you might have. I will do my best to answer them!