Well, it would be much quicker for me to say “everything that is processed”, but that’s probably not too helpful! The problem is, that is pretty much the case.
If you have celiac or gluten-sensitivity, there is so much you need to be aware of and avoid.
Here’s the deal:
“It’s one of the most common food additives on the planet and is used not only in processed foods, but also in personal care products. As a trusty stabilising agent, it helps cheese spreads and margarines retain their smooth texture, and it prevents sauces and gravies from curdling. Thickening hair conditioners and volumizing mascaras have gluten to thank, too.” David Perlmutter, MD, Grain Brain
These are foods that tripped me up as I was trying to go gluten free. Pretty much all of these foods are not healthy anyway – that’s how there can be hidden gluten, in the manufacturing process!
If you trying to go gluten-free, you really must get rid of all packaged foods and start with a really simple diet (read: fruit, veg, fresh herbs, oils, eggs, meat). The area that will trip you up is processed foods (boxed, bottled, canned etc – anything with ingredients), where they add all sorts of hidden nasties – including gluten.
Always, always, always read labels very carefully, and if in doubt contact the manufacturer and ask questions! And remember, wheat free does not mean gluten free.
1. Xanthan Gum
If you’ve been looking around the interwebs for gluten-free baked goods, you’ve likely come across xanthan gum. Here’s the little known secret: xanthan gum is usually derived from wheat!
Xanthan gum is a largely indigestible polysaccharide that is produced by bacteria called Xanthomonas Camestris. (1) The ‘medium’ used is often corn, soy, dairy, or wheat. But many xanthan gum manufacturers don’t share what their ‘medium’ is.
Bob’s Red Mill does disclose their production practices. They originally used corn or soy as a medium, but they’ve since changed their medium to a glucose solution derived from wheat starch. However, they claim that the xanthan gum is still gluten-free, and it continues to be marketed as such. (2)
I would avoid xanthan gum personally, as it’s made in a lab and its derived from either corn or wheat. Not worth it. Just because they claim it’s gluten free, doesn’t mean my body is going to think the same.
White vinegar seems innocent enough and you wouldn’t think to give it a second glance, but it’s a controversial one. White vinegar can be made from almost any starch source (or a combination of), including gluten grains. In the U.S. white vinegar is mostly made from corn (still a cross reactor and should be avoided), in many other countries malt from barley is used.
And here’s where the argument of gluten-derived foods arrives: manufacturers don’t need to disclose the presence of wheat as a starting ingredient in distilled white vinegar because they reckon distillation breaks down and removes the allergen causing gluten proteins. But many people have real celiac reactions to gluten derived foods. Just cause the scientists say it shouldn’t react doesn’t mean that’s what happens in the complicated processes of the body (that science doesn’t even fully understand yet).
There are many arguments to be had here about foods derived from wheat that manufacturers swear don’t have any in the final product. I guess it comes down to how sensitive you are to gluten, how clean you want your diet to be and how sure you want to be you have zero gluten in your diet.
Heinz use corn for their distilled white vinegar, Annie’s Organic use corn or beets.
White vinegar is used in condiments like ketchup and mustard, as well as regular supermarket pickled foods like capers, pickles, relish etc. When vinegar is used in condiments the manufacturer doesn’t have to specify what type of vinegar it contains – so you will have to contact the manufacturer to find out.
What about other types of vinegar?
Malt vinegar definitely contains gluten.
Apple cider vinegar is safe, and in my opinion the only vinegar safe enough to eat – I like the Braggs brand.
Balsamic vinegar is made from grapes so is safe in that regard, but the vinegar is then aged in wood casks, which are sometimes sealed with a wheat or rye flour paste and could contaminate the vinegar. You would have to contact the manufacturer to find out. Balsamic vinegar also has high levels of lead, so look for lead-free on the bottle too.
Wine vinegar is also considered safe but has the lead issue too.
Cane vinegar is made from cane sugar so is safe.
For flavoured vinegars you will need to check the label.
Rice vinegar is technically safe – but rice is a known cross reactor for people with celiac and gluten-sensitivity. It is often used in Japanese cooking along with wheat-containing soy sauce and barley malt – so be careful when eating out.
Alcohol suffers the same controversy as vinegar. Do foods derived from gluten grains have gluten in the final product? They argue because alcohol is so distilled it won’t give people a reaction. I call bull.
Beer is made with barley hops and therefore contains gluten. There are gluten free beers available though.
Wine, brandy, champagne, cognac, port wine, sherry, and vermouth are generally considered safe.
For distilled alcohol, check labels and research particular brands – look for gluten-free on the label.
I found giving up alcohol to be a really positive thing for my mind and body – give it a try!
4. Spices + Spice Mixes
The problem with spices is that they are easily susceptible to cross contamination. On top of that, spice mixes often use flour as an anti-caking agent, which means there is flour in that processing plant too.
To make sure the spices you are buying are gluten free, carefully check the label for the “processed on equipment…” line and if there is wheat or gluten in there, don’t buy it. Cerfified gluten-free products are best in this instince.
5. Shredded Cheese
When I went gluten-free, I turned to cheese to make food taste good again, and made the huge mistake of using pre-shredded cheese! This cheese is often dusted with flour to prevent sticking
I also didn’t know when I went gluten-free that dairy (including cheese) is the most cross-reactive food for celiacs and should be strictly avoided by almost everyone with celiac or gluten-sensitivity!
6. Soy sauce + miso
The main ingredient in soy sauce is wheat! Also includes other Asian sauces like keycap manis, hoisin sauce etc.
Miso is usually made with soy beans, but seems to always have barley (gluten) or rice (gluten cross-reactor) in it, so be careful!
7. Vegan (Fake) Meats + Eggs
Besides not being at all healthy, fake meat is literally the worst thing you could eat for celiac/GS – gluten is perfect for binding, so they isolate the gluten protein and use it in fake meats to help give a meaty texture – watch out for anything made with vital wheat gluten like veggie burgers or sausages.
Made of gluten = vital wheat gluten, sietan, fake veggie meats like hot dogs, sausages, bacon, meat patties.
Also generally contains gluten = flavoured tofu, some tempeh, Hydrolyzed Plant Protein (HPP), Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP), Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), some egg substitutes.
Use instead: make your own veggie burgers with chickpeas, nuts and seeds. Cook with with tofu sparingly and choose organic, non-GMO with no flavours added. Use real eggs.
8. Tricky condiments!
Condiments and sauces are the hardest to be certain they are gluten-free. They can put so many different things into food under the words “flavours, natural flavours, vinegar, spices” etc that you don’t really know what’s in the final product!
Steer clear of these: Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, asian sauces (stir frys, keycap manis, hoisin etc), broth and boullion cubes, mustard (the spice is usually contaminated at processing level), BBQ sauce, salad dressings.
The best bet is to make your own condiments! A little extra effort but they will actually be healthy and you will feel safe and certain that they are gluten-free! Make your own mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, dressings, BBQ sauce etc.
9. Deli meats / Processed meats
Be careful of sausages, hot dogs, ham, bacon, prosciutto, pre-packaged lunch meats, cured meats (salami, pepperoni), self-basting poultry unless they specifically say gluten-free. Also avoid meats cooked in beer (brats, meats and sausages). Avoid any meats that are marinaded, dry rubbed or pre-spiced. Avoid imitation seafood (eg. seafood salads from deli’s, “crab” salads).
Things with ground meat like meatballs, meatloaf and hamburger patties often contain ‘fillers’ of gluten.
Also be very careful of canned meat, tuna and fish.
You will need to check labels carefully, and ask questions about them to be sure they are gluten-free.
10. French Fries + Hash Browns
I used to think that at least if I’m out with people and starving I could get the french fries at a fast food restaurant and be safe – but unfortunately that’s not the case! Had to learn that one the hard way.
There are two problems with fast food (and frozen bags) french fries: the first problem is that fast food chains use frozen french fries which often have a flour coating to prevent sticking, be seasoned with malt vinegar or contain wheat starch. There is also a high risk of cross contamination with things coated in bread crumbs like onion rings or chicken nuggets or patties.
Things at fast food restaurants are never quite what they seem. You would think french fries would be as simple as potatoes, oil and salt, right? Well get ready for this. Here’s the unbelievable ingredients list for french fries from McDonalds (4):
Ingredients: Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Natural Beef Flavor [Wheat and Milk Derivatives]*, Citric Acid [Preservative]), Dextrose, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate (Maintain Color), Salt.
Prepared in Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil) with TBHQ and Citric Acid to preserve freshness of the oil and Dimethylpolysiloxane to reduce oil splatter when cooking.
CONTAINS: WHEAT AND MILK
*Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients.
I know right!
Also watch out for…
Cross contamination is when the food becomes contaminated with gluten at any stage during the processing or cooking: during harvesting, processing, milling, packaging, purchasing or cooking. Because of the way most packaged food is processed these days, it’s very easy for foods that don’t inherently have gluten in them to become contaminated with gluten, especially when it comes to flour which gets everywhere.
This is also what makes it so difficult to eat out at restaurants. You must be very diligent and careful when it comes to cross contamination.
Cross reaction is when certain foods that look similar in amino acid structure to gluten create the same inflammatory immune response in your body as gluten, so you’re body still thinks you are eating gluten, even though your not. I wrote about his extensively here, and it’s worth reading and seeing what foods are cross reactors and avoiding them.