Successfully avoiding gluten requires you to be a supermarket sleuth with a keen eye for gluten-containing products and ingredients. Here are our tips to get you started.
Credit: Photo: Oxmoor House

Always read labels.
For those following a gluten-free diet, reading and decoding labels is vital to successful shopping. The key is knowing what to look for in the sometimes lengthy list of ingredients that may include unfamiliar words. For the ingredients other than wheat and the gluten-containing grains (listed in our Gluten-Free What to Eat (and Not Eat) guide) that are foreign to you, various websites (see our What is Gluten? guide) have lists of ingredients that are safe and forbidden. You may want to print out these lists and take them with you when shopping.

Check labels every time.
Even if the product doesn’t say “new” on its package, or if it’s a brand that’s traditionally safe and that you use often without any problem, you still need to always check ingredient lists for changes. Food manufacturers often tweak their products, ingredients change, and a product that was gluten free and safe may not be so in the newly revamped version.

Shop the perimeter and gluten-free foods aisle.
The perimeter of the grocery store is usually gluten-free and should be your main shopping area since it contains fruits, vegetables, fi sh and shellfi sh, plain meats and poultry, milk, and eggs. Many grocery stores now have sections devoted entirely to gluten-free foods or shelf tags that point out gluten-free foods, which are extremely helpful when navigating the predominantly gluten-fi lled aisles.

“Wheat-free” doesn’t mean gluten-free.
Since gluten is also found in rye and barley, a product labeled as wheat free could still contain gluten.

If a label isn’t clear, contact the manufacturer. 
When a label just isn’t clear to you, check the manufacturer’s website or contact the manufacturer directly. The customer service center should be able to address your concerns. If they’re unsure or can’t provide a concrete answer, don’t buy the product.

Decoding food labels
Reading food labels is a must when living gluten-free. Sometimes, the distinctions between gluten-free and gluten-containing foods aren’t always obvious until you read the label. Food companies manufacture their products differently, and the ingredients often vary from brand to brand. So it’s vital to learn the names of ingredients that could cause concern if you see them on food labels. With practice, patience, and time, label reading will become second nature. 

  • Barley: Barley, a gluten-containing grain, appears on labels as malt, malt extract, malt flavoring, malt syrup, barley malt flavoring, and barley malt syrup. All of these terms indicate the presence of gluten, and the item should be avoided.
  • Caramel color: This ingredient, when manufactured in North America, is produced from corn and is gluten free.
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP): This term is not used on a label. Instead, the label must specify the vegetable or grain, such as “hydrolyzed wheat protein,” which is not gluten free, or “hydrolyzed soy protein,” which is gluten free.
  • Maltodextrin: This ingredient is made from corn, potato, or rice and should not be confused with the barley-containing ingredients known as malt or malt flavoring. If wheat was used, the label would have to say “wheat maltodextrin” or “maltodextrin (wheat).” The term “dextrin” is rarely used on food labels.
  • Wheat starch: The starch is used as a binder and thickening agent in foods such as gravies, sauce packets, and seasoning blends. If it is used as an ingredient, the label must say “wheat.”