Identifying Gluten on Food Labels: Become a Master in Minutes!

By Jenny Stegen | August 25, 2020

Cart moving down grocery store aisle

Would you agree that food labels often look like they are written in a different language? This step-by-step guide will help you readily identify gluten ingredients. Remember - wheat is not the only source of gluten. Barley and rye are additional sources of gluten that are important. Therefore, when reading labels, you must learn how to identify wheat, barley, and rye.

Choosing foods with confidence is very important when you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance. It is important for you to know that a food doesn't have to be labeled gluten free in order for it to be safe. In fact, there are lots of safe choices that come without a gluten free claim on the label.

I like keeping things simple and easy to understand and I really think you are going to like this post! Read on to discover how to identify a variety of safe and wonderful food choices. I recommend you print my flow chart and follow along as you read this post. You will soon be a master at identifying gluten on food labels!

Step 1: Look for a statement that says Contains Wheat

This statement will often be in bold at the end of the list of ingredients. The word wheat may be buried somewhere within the list of ingredients. It is usually obvious and not an unfamiliar word thanks to labeling rules that have made it easier for allergens to be identified. It will most often come at the end of the list of the ingredients and will be easy to find. Exclude all foods containing wheat.

Ingredients list on food label with Contains Wheat circled

Step 2: Look for Barley in the List of Ingredients

Since barley is not considered one of the major food allergens, you will have to search for it. Unlike wheat, it will not be written in bold or declared at the end of the ingredients list. The following indicates the presence of barley and should be excluded from your diet: barley, barley flour, barley malt, malt extract, malt flavor, malt syrup, malt vinegar. Basically, anything containing the words barley or malt.

Maltodextrin is OK. Rarely is it derived from wheat. If it is, it will be clearly stated on the label.

A few uncommon sources of barley include yeast extract, natural flavors, smoke flavoring, and rice syrup. If the product is labeled 'gluten-free', you do not need to worry about these ingredients. I did not add these to the flow chart as they are rarely a problem. However, if you feel ill after eating a product, you should check for one of these ingredients and call the manufacturer to inquire about the presence of gluten.

Any of the following indicate presence of barley: barley, malt, malt extract, malt flavor, malt syrup, malt vinegar.

Barely in list of ingredients on Kellogg's Rice Krispies

Barley found in Kellogg's Rice Krispies

Step 3: Look for the Word Rye in the List of Ingredients

You won’t see this ingredient too often. Just look for the word rye - it's as simple as that. Exclude all foods containing rye.

Rye found in list of ingredients on product label

Step 4: Look for an Advisory Statement on the Packaging

It is often found below the list of ingredients. Examples of advisory statements include:

  • “May contain traces of wheat”
  • “Made on shared equipment with wheat”
  • “Manufactured in a facility that processes wheat”

Many of these products will be safe, but those who are highly sensitive should use with caution and avoid if they make you feel sick.

Advisory statement on a product label containing wheat

Step 5: Look for a Gluten Free Statement or a Certified Gluten Free Seal

Foods with gluten free statements on the label are good choices. It is still wise to scan the ingredients list for gluten. On a very rare occasion, a product will be mislabeled as gluten free when indeed it contains gluten. If you feel sick after eating a food that is labeled gluten free, you should consider contacting the manufacturer to make sure they did not mislabel the product. Mistakes can happen in just about any industry including the food industry. Like I said - not a common occurrence.

Gluten free certification symbols

These are certified gluten free seals to look for on packaging. Foods with these certifications meet the highest testing standards for gluten. These are the best choices for those highly sensitive to gluten. The logos in the top row are in the process of changing their appearance as indicated by the arrow.

Step 6: Look for Oats in the List of Ingredients.

Noted in pink box on flow chart

If the product contains oats make sure it is labeled gluten free. Oats are naturally gluten free but often contaminated with wheat through the manufacturing process.

Step 7: Processed Meat Products

Noted in pink box on flow chart

Processed meat products have their own labeling standards and gluten ingredients may not be quite as obvious. Examples include cold cuts, sausages, hot dogs, bacon, etc. Look for wheat, barley, and rye in these products just as you would with other foods. It is safest to use meat products that are labeled gluten free. If it is not labeled gluten free, be cautious of the following ingredients: starch, modified food starch, dextrin. If you see these ingredients on a meat label, call the company to check for the presence of gluten before eating.

Sliced ham with gluten free claim

Recap of the steps to take when looking for gluten on a food label:

  1. Look for wheat; if wheat is found do not consume
  2. Look for barley (sources listed in light blue box above); if sources of barely are found do not consume
  3. Look for rye; if rye is found do not consume
  4. Look for an advisory statement; if one is found, check the spectrum of risk. If the product is moderate risk or higher, call manufacturer first to check for the presence of gluten OR go ahead try it with caution. If you become ill, avoid in the future
  5. Look for gluten free statements and gluten free certifications. These products are excellent choices.
  6. Make sure products containing oats (oatmeal, granola bars, granola, etc) have a gluten free claim or gluten free certification on the label.
  7. Make sure processed meat products (sausage, cold cuts, bacon, hotdogs, etc) have a gluten free claim or gluten free certification on the label.
  8. If you follow these steps and feel that a product makes you ill, check the label again and consider calling the manufacturer to check for presence of gluten or cross-contamination.

Congratulations! You are now an expert in selecting safe gluten free food products! The electronic version of my flow chart can be found below and on my Gluten Free Resources Page. You may want to print it for your convenience. As an additional tool, I created a chart below that categorizes foods and products according to their risk of containing gluten. Hoping all of this makes the process of learning a new lifestyle a little easier for you!

Health and Happiness,

Jenny's Signature