What Does “Gluten-Free” Really Mean?

What Does “Gluten-Free” Really Mean?

You’ve probably seen “gluten-free” labels on everything from candy to crackers at your supermarket. But what is “gluten-free,” really?

We’ll explain what the gluten-free label means and what you need to know before embracing a gluten-free diet.

What Is Gluten-Free?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and certain grains like barley, rye, and triticale (a wheat and rye hybrid),” explains Samantha Thoms, M.P.H., R.D.,

Eating a gluten-free diet means avoiding foods that contain these ingredients.

While that may seem simple, ditching gluten is tricky because it can hide in unexpected places, like soy sauce, malt vinegar, beer, and some soups.

Rolls with "gluten free" sign

Why Choose a Gluten-Free Diet?

For some, going gluten-free is a medical necessity, while it’s simply a lifestyle choice for others.

Here are some of the main reasons for eating a gluten-free diet:

1. You’re allergic to gluten

About 1 in 100 people have celiac disease, a condition where eating gluten can trigger the immune system to attack and damage the small intestine lining.

A damaged small intestine can’t properly absorb nutrients from food.

When left untreated, celiac disease may result in serious health issues.

“If gluten is not strictly avoided, its consumption can lead to systemic health issues such as anemia, thyroid disease, or even infertility,” says Thoms.

For these individuals, treatment is strictly following a gluten-free diet. If you suspect you may have celiac disease, please consult a doctor.

2. You’re sensitive to gluten

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is where eating gluten may result in symptoms similar to celiac disease (e.g., abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, foggy brain, headache) but doesn’t damage the small intestine.

These individuals also benefit from avoiding gluten; again, if you suspect you may have gluten sensitivity, please consult a doctor.

3. You’re looking to lose weight

Many high-profile celebrities, like Lady Gaga, Gweneth Paltrow, and Miley Cyrus, credit gluten-free for successful weight loss.

This strategy works because “going gluten-free” means giving up on junky high gluten foods like bread, cereal, pizza, pasta, cake, cookies, and beer.

If this is looking more like a low-carb diet, it’s not. High-carb foods like rice, corn, and beans are gluten-free. Potatoes are also gluten-free.

Gluten isn’t bad for everyone.

Unless you have a true gluten allergy or sensitivity, there aren’t benefits beyond maybe creating a calorie deficit.

Still, if it works for you, who are we to judge?

For women who want to follow a strict gluten-free diet, Thoms advises, “Make sure you’re getting all the vitamins you need, particularly folic acid if you are or plan to be pregnant. While most of our grain products are fortified with B-vitamins, most gluten-free grains are not. Thankfully, there are many gluten-free foods that contain folic acid like leafy greens, orange juice, and beans.”

A woman hand picks up a Gluten Free loaf of bread.

Gluten-Free Food Labels

If you’re shopping for gluten-free foods, here are the labels you’ll want to scan for:

  • Gluten-free
  • No gluten
  • Free of gluten
  • Without gluten

Based on U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) rules, foods that carry the labels above must contain fewer than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.

gluten-free label can be found on:

  • foods with no gluten-containing ingredients.
  • food with no cross-contamination with gluten-containing ingredients.
  • foods with gluten-containing ingredients, but enough gluten has been removed during processing to be below 20 ppm.
  • foods that naturally don’t contain gluten at all, but adding the label makes them more appealing to consumers.

Bowl of soy sauce with chopsticks on table

Should I Avoid All Foods Without “Gluten-Free” Labeling?

Nope. Gluten-free labeling isn’t mandatory.

Some packaged foods are naturally gluten-free without labels, but you’ll need to carefully check the ingredients list.

Examples include dried fruit, yogurt, mixed nuts, salsa, hummus, etc.

Then, there are packaged foods that you should probably avoid unless labeled “gluten-free” because they often have gluten-containing ingredients:

  • Beer and other grain-based alcohol
  • Bread, cake, cereals, cookies, crackers, pastries, pasta
  • Candies
  • Chips
  • Sauces, salad dressings, gravies
  • Processed meats
  • Rice mixes
  • Soups

Embracing gluten-free doesn’t mean you need to give up on all carbs.

If you can’t find a gluten-free option you like, try finding a gluten-free recipe like this delicious Gluten-Free Banana Bread!