How to Spot Gluten on Food Labels—Plus, 9 Surprising Packaged Foods That Contain Gluten
When you’re gluten-free, it’s easy to stay away from obvious wheat-based foods like pasta, pretzels and cookies. The tricky part comes from trying to navigate processed and prepared foods where you wouldn’t expect wheat or other gluten grains to be an ingredient.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat (and all its variations including spelt, farro and wheatberries), barley (including malt), rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Gluten helps foods maintain their shapes, improve texture and acts as a glue that binds ingredients together, which is why gluten-based ingredients frequently show up in places you wouldn’t expect.
How to tell if a packaged food is gluten-free
- 1. First, look for a gluten-free label. The FDA only allows foods to be labeled “gluten-free” if they contain less than 20ppm of gluten.
- 2. Check the allergen listing for “wheat.” However, wheat-free does not necessarily mean gluten-free. Barley and rye are not in the top eight allergens required to be listed by the FDA.
- 3. Check the ingredients list carefully for obvious signs of gluten: wheat, barley, rye, malt, brewer’s yeast and oats. (Oats are a high-risk of cross contamination and people with celiac should avoid them unless they are specifically labeled gluten-free.)
Remember to check the ingredients label every time you buy packaged food, even if you’ve bought it in the past since manufacturers may change their ingredients at any time. Third-party certified gluten-free foods (like Mikey’s!) meet the strictest gluten-free standards.
9 foods you wouldn’t expect to contain gluten
1. Taco seasoning packets
Manufacturers sometimes add flour or a gluten-based starch to taco and fajita seasoning mixes in order to prevent the spices from clumping together. Be sure to double check the ingredients list before purchasing.
What to buy instead: Look for seasoning mixes that specifically state they are gluten-free, or mix your own taco seasoning—we recommend this simple recipe:
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2. Rotisserie chickens
Rotisserie chickens are a quick and easy meal, but they’re surprisingly not always gluten-free. Some grocery stories coat them with spice mixes or other flavorings that contain wheat to make the skin crispier.
What to buy instead: Look for rotisserie chickens that are specifically labeled gluten-free, or ask the deli manager how the chickens are made if the packaging is unclear. If you are unsure, skip the rotisserie chicken and buy a whole chicken and cook it yourself, or try frozen gluten-free chicken tenders.
3. Soy sauce
Despite sounding like a condiment that’s got nothing to hide, most soy sauces are brewed with wheat. Look out for soy sauce as an ingredient in pre-mixed marinades and salad dressings.
What to buy instead: Tamari is a Japanese form of soy sauce that’s traditionally a by-product of miso paste and made without gluten, though you should always double check the label to be sure. Some mainstream soy sauce brands also offer gluten-free options brewed with rice rather than wheat.
4. Low-fat cream cheese
Cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese and other cheese products sometimes contain gluten ingredients. For the most part, full-fat options with no added flavorings are naturally gluten-free, but all bets are off for low-fat versions. In low fat and “whipped” cream cheese, modified wheat starches and other add-ins are used as stabilizers to prevent ingredients from separating and to prolong shelf-life, according to Healthline.
What to buy instead: Full-fat cream cheese, cottage cheese and ricotta (but double check the label). Many, but not all, plant-based cream cheeses are also gluten-free.
5. Corn and rice breakfast cereals
You might think there’s nothing to worry about with Rice Krispies—what could be the problem with toasted rice?—but you’d be wrong. Many gluten-free breakfast cereals that seem like they should be gluten-free actually contain malt flavoring, which is extracted from barley.
What to buy instead: Only eat breakfast cereals that are specifically certified gluten-free. Many cereals that are naturally gluten-free are prone to cross-contamination during manufacturing. (Or skip the cereal and have a Mikey’s Gluten-Free Breakfast Pocket instead!)
6. Salad dressings & marinades
Double check the labels on salad dressings, marinades and other sauces. These can contain malt vinegar and soy sauce for flavor, or wheat flour as a thickener.
What to buy instead: Look for dressings specifically labeled gluten-free. Alternatively, opt for simple oil and balsamic vinegar or make your own homemade gluten-free dressing.
7. Processed meats
Deli meat, hot dogs and sausages are all potential sources of hidden gluten, so always double-check the packages. The Celiac Disease Foundation advises looking for ingredients like “starch” or “dextrin” which can come from any grain, including wheat or barley. With deli meat, avoid purchasing meat sliced in-store since there is a higher risk of cross-contamination from other meats sliced on the same equipment.
What to buy instead: Pre-packaged deli meat, hot dogs and sausages that are clearly marked gluten-free, or unprocessed meat like chicken breasts and ground beef.
8. Wine coolers
Yep, wine coolers and hard lemonades, teas, sodas and fruity drinks contain gluten. Like beer, these are all malted beverages, and malt comes from barley.
What to buy instead: Wine and distilled liquors. Hard seltzer and cider are usually gluten-free too, but double check the labels.
9. Licorice and gummy candy
Licorice seems like it’d just be 100 percent sugar, but check the package and you’ll likely see wheat listed as the second or third ingredient. Gummy bears and other gummy candies frequently contain glucose syrup and dextrose, both of which are often derived from wheat.
What to buy instead: Luckily, it’s not too hard to find gummies without gluten ingredients to satisfy your sweet tooth, though gluten-free licorice options are more limited. Sweedish Fish don’t contain any gluten ingredients, and YumEarth makes gluten-free licorice, gummies and fruit snacks. Note: Always check ingredients before purchasing because they may change at any time.Mikey’s is proud to partner with the Celiac Disease Foundation to spread awareness about celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects 3 million people in the U.S.