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.
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.
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.
There are two types of allergen statements. One of which is required per FDA guidelines and one that 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. If a food item has a “contains wheat”, it is not safe.
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. I personally will eat food processed in the same facility but not always on the same equipment.
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.
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, you need to read the ingredient list.
When reading the ingredient list you need to look for any obvious gluten-containing ingredients.
If you don’t see any unsafe 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.
For a more in-depth list of suspicious ingredients, I cover this in detail in the Celiac Crash Course.
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.
While there can be a lot more to reading food labels, I hope this post on how to check food labels for gluten has been helpful. I think it provides a solid foundation and starting point for finding safe food. I cover this in more detail in the Celiac Crash Course, complete with label-reading simulations and practice problems to help you practice navigating tricky situations. Learn more here.