Knowing how to check food labels for gluten is an important skill for people with celiac or other gluten-related disorders.
This guide on how to check food labels for gluten will help you determine if a packaged food item is safe for someone with celiac disease based on USA labeling laws.
It’s important to note that these are general standards and some people with celiac disease or NCGS have even stricter standards then listed below. If you’re buying food for someone who is living gluten-free, be sure to check with them on if the item is acceptable too.
P.s. Need help with label-reading and knowing if products like this are gluten-free? Sign up for my FREE USA Food Label-Reading Class where I show you EXACTLY what you need to look for on a food label to stay celiac-safe in the USA. Stop stressing over grocery shopping in just 4-simple steps with this FREE training!
When talking about checking food labels for gluten, it’s important we know what gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in barley, rye, contaminated oats, and wheat. It may be helpful to remember the acronym “BROW” when trying to remember what foods have gluten.
In baked goods, gluten holds things together working as a binding agent. It gives texture and chew to foods.
Most people can safely eat gluten. However, some people have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease which means they need to avoid gluten. It can cause digestive issues such as diarrhea and nausea as well as nonintestinal symptoms such as rashes, headaches, or joint pain.
When approaching a food label, remember the acronym “CANS”:
The first step to identifying gluten in food is to look for gluten-free claims and certifications on the label.
If a food product has a gluten-free claim or certification in the USA than that food item is celiac-safe per FDA law (with the exception of oats, learn more about the oats and celiac here.)
This is because per FDA law, anything with a gluten-free claim (which is “gluten-free” or “no gluten” etc.) must have <20ppm of gluten in it, which is considered celiac-safe.
In some countries, this cut-off is even lower.
In fact, cutoffs range from 20 ppm in Spain, Italy, UK,37 Canada, and USA, to 10 ppm in Argentina and 3 ppm in Australia, New Zealand, and Chile.
If you can’t find a gluten-free claim or certification anywhere on the label, it’s time to move on to the next step!
If gluten isn’t listed in the ingredients it’s time for the next step on checking food labels for gluten. The next step is to read the allergen statement.
Now people get allergen statements confused with allergen advisories. One of which is required per FDA guidelines and one is voluntary.
The required allergen statement is the “contains” statement. This is the statement that clearly calls out any top 8 allergens in the food item, including wheat. If a food item has a “contains wheat”, it is not safe. However, this does not include the other gluten-containing grains, barley and rye.
The voluntary statements are what’s known as the Allergen Advisory Statements. These statements are the “may contain”, “processed on the same equipment” and “made in the same facility” claims. This statement makes things a little more complicated.
This step is very individualized. Some people will eat foods processed on the same equipment and facility as gluten, others will not. What’s important to note about allergen advisory statements is that they have been researched to not be a good indicator of the gluten-free status of food, and instead are an indicator of the wheat-free status of food for people with a wheat allergy. Which has very different needs than those with celiac.
Keep this in mind when deciding what you are comfortable with when reading a food label. And when in doubt, consult a celiac-specialized dietitian, like myself.
Also something to note is that the CANS acronym is in the order it’s in for a reason, so the allergen statement is irrelevant if you’ve identified a gluten-free claim or certification on the product.
If the allergen statement looks good, move on to step 3 of the CANS acronym.
Next on how to check food labels for gluten is checking the label for obvious unsafe ingredients.
If you can’t find “gluten-free” anywhere on the food item or label, and you don’t see “wheat” in the allergen statement, you now need to read the ingredient list.
When reading the ingredient list you need to look for any obvious gluten-containing ingredients.
Remember the acronym “BROW” which stands for Barley, Rye, Oats (sometimes), and Wheat. I talk more on these foods to avoid with celiac in this post. If you don’t see any of these not safe ingredients on the label, move on to the last step.
Lastly, are there any suspicious ingredients mentioned on the food label without a gluten-free claim? These ingredients are those that might not obviously contain gluten if the label isn’t specified as gluten-free. An example is Natural Flavors.
There used to be a long list of ingredients we had to be careful of, but thanks to our growing understanding of different ingredients, the list has gotten shorter and shorter. For a detailed list of what you’re looking for, I discuss this more in my FREE Label Reading Class.
If you see something that could be hiding gluten in the form of barley or rye, you will either want to put the product back or gather more information from the manufacturer’s website or by contacting them.
Which leads me to say, sometimes I will contact the manufacturer or company about a food I am unsure about. I recommend this especially if you anxious or want more info. I find the best way is to call, email, or DM companies on social media.
This can help clarify any questions you might have about the gluten-free status of a food item. Especially if the product has ingredients that could potentially hide gluten.
For a more detailed guide on how to identify gluten on a food label, check out my totally free training where I walk you through these steps in more detail AND give you examples so you can be confident you’re selecting safe food!