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What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, educator, and blogger at Healthy at Home. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

Just like every other food fad, we’ve heard a lot about gluten and “gluten-free” products on the market. Everyone is turning to this gluten-free option for their kids and the rest of their families to be healthier and avoid any allergic reactions.

What exactly is this gluten and is it really a healthier option for us? All I know is that all of my bread-maker recipes require gluten to make my bread rise and hold its form after baking, and suddenly I can’t find it anywhere anymore.

The US Food and Drug Administration has defined the term "gluten-free" as food having less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten in it. But why does this matter to us? For certain people, foods with gluten can lead to severe digestive issues and serious conditions like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and intestinal cancers (Wikipedia).

It turns out that a gluten-free diet is the only medically accepted treatment for a condition called celiac disease. Celiac disease is a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten (National Library of Medicine).

But what does this mean for your day-in, day-out grocery shopping? Well, let’s look at this new term “gluten” a little closer to find out.

Quick Poll

What Exactly is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein complex found in wheat, barley, rye and a grain called triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).

Gluten is the gluey protein that's found in most of our common dietary items such as breads, pastas, cereals, and desserts. It's essential for making most traditional baked goods because it creates the "fluffy" quality of cakes and muffins and binds doughs, giving them their moist texture. It helps bread to rise and stay in its risen form after baking, also giving it a spongy texture.

However, gluten can also be found in some of the most unlikely food items like beer, soy sauce, salad dressings, malted candies, processed cheeses. It’s everywhere and hard to avoid. Let’s look at some items to avoid in order to avoid gluten in your foods.

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

Foods to Avoid

The biggest item you’ll want to avoid is wheat because it’s in just about everything. However, wheat products go by numerous names. There are many types of wheat flour on grocery shelves like bromated, enriched, phosphated, plain, and self-rising but they also go by other, more complicated, names like bulgur, durum flour, farina, graham flour, kamut, semolina, and spelt. This is going to be the important one if you want to avoid gluten.

Unless they are specifically made with corn, rice, soy, or other gluten-free grains, you’ll also want to avoid beer, breads, cakes, pies, candies, cereals, cookies, crackers, croutons, French fries, gravies, imitation meat or seafood, Matzo, pastas, processed luncheon meats, salad dressings, sauces, including soy sauce, seasoned rice mixes, seasoned snack foods, such as potato and tortilla chips, self-basting poultry, soups, soup bases, and pre-packaged vegetables in sauce (Mayo Clinic).

Don’t worry. We will also cover what you can eat, what you should look for, and how to create some amazing gluten-free meals that will make you forget about gluten altogether.

You should also be alert for other products that you eat or that could come in contact with your mouth that may contain gluten that include:

  • Food additives, such as malt flavoring, modified food starch and others, and
  • Medications and vitamins that use gluten as a binding agent

Health Benefits of Being Gluten-Free

Although the task of finding anything worthy of eating that does not contain gluten seems near to impossible, many people are turning to this alternative in an effort to stay healthy. But, despite the health claims for gluten-free eating, there is no published experimental evidence to support such claims for the general population.

Gluten-free fad diets have simply become the next popular “diet” everyone is turning to for the “answer.” This may be because celiac disease has been seriously underdiagnosed and in an effort to avoid the possibility of sickness people are "unnecessarily turning to the diet as a food fad" without the direction of a doctor.

Others have heard that this option is great for children suffering from autism, and that by avoiding gluten, the symptoms will go away giving the one suffering some respite. However, despite the advocacy, evidence of the diet's efficacy as an autism treatment is very poor.

In spite of vigorous marketing, a variety of studies, including a study by the University of Rochester, found that the popular “autism diet” does not demonstrate any noticeable behavioral improvement, and instead fails to show any genuine benefit to children diagnosed with autism at all (Wikipedia).

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In line with all of the false marketing, and incorrectly shared rumors of the benefits, manufacturers are covering their food items now with labels claiming that their items are in fact “gluten-free” when this may not be the truth. What?!

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

Gluten-Free Food Labels

Grocery store shelves are filled with products that claim to be “gluten free.” Well, of course if it says that on the package, it has to be true, right? Not completely.

Under the rules of the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers designating their products as "gluten-free" can still have up to 20 parts per million of gluten in them. According to the FDA, most people with celiac disease can handle a small amount of gluten in their food each day.

However, plenty of these people that are trusting manufacturers to tell the truth react even to levels of gluten below 20ppm. So if you get glutened after trying a new "gluten-free” product, it's perfectly possible that you're reacting to the trace amounts of gluten included in that product, even if it meets the legal definition of "gluten-free." (

Standards for "gluten-free" labeling have been set, but these regulations still fluctuate from one country to the next. What the US deems as “gluten-free” won’t be the same as China’s designation, or Australia’s, or Egypt’s.

It’s important that you know what your limitations are if you have problems with gluten, which your doctor can share with you, and you do your best to make sure you know what items you are eating actually contain. Unfortunately, it may not always be listed on the package.

Many so-called gluten-free products, such as chicken bouillon, corn cereal, and caramel ice cream topping, have been found to have been contaminated with gluten. The same food labeling laws that allow manufacturers to call their foods “gluten-free” when they still contain gluten also do not require manufacturers to disclose gluten amounts and ingredients in their products.

It’s completely possible that there may be gluten in your foods even if it’s not recorded or labeled on the package.

For those that absolutely cannot have gluten, this is really dangerous, but what’s even more dangerous is when people that have not been told by a doctor to avoid gluten are putting themselves on a gluten-free diet.

Gluten PPM Table

Company"Gluten-Free" ProductsGluten PPM Level

Aleia's Gluten-Free Foods

breads, bread crumbs, cookies, croutons, stuffing


Amy's Kitchen

frozen meals, soups, pizzas, snacks


Applegate Farms

Organic and natural meat products

GF-10 for GF chicken nuggets, GF-20 for other products

Bakery on Main

Granola and energy bars


Betty Crocker Gluten-Free

Bisquick, baking mixes



gluten-free baking mix


Boar's Head

cold cuts, luncheon meats, cheese, hot dogs


Chex cereals

gluten-free cereal


Chobani Yogurt



Dove Chocolate

chocolate bars, ice cream



Ice cream and frozen desserts


Eat Smart/Snyder's of Hanover

potato chips and vegetable chips



breads, crackers, cookies, cereal, flours, mixes



chips, snacks


General Mills

Chex cereals and other products



Ice cream and frozen desserts


Gluten-Free Kraft Foods

wide range of food products



ready-to-bake dough products



potato chips


Wellshire Farms

ham, hot dogs, lunch meats, bacon, sausage


Whole Foods Gluten-Free Bakehouse

Gluten-Free Bakehouse breads, rolls, pies, muffins, pastries


What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

Gluten-Free Diet Deficiencies

Going completely gluten-free is only essential for 1% of people who have celiac disease. For those people, the gluten protein can damage the lining of their small intestines, impairing their body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

Ultimately, that can lead to malnutrition and may contribute to a host of other health problems, including osteoporosis and even cancer. About 6% of those with celiac disease have a much milder reaction to gluten. In them, the protein isn’t linked to any serious health problem, but can cause them painful gastrointestinal distress.

Although grocery store shelves are filled to the brim right now with products that claim to be “gluten free,” going gluten free when you don’t need to can actually be a really bad idea. No one should ever avoid gluten without first talking with a doctor.

Attempting to go gluten-free if you don’t need to is actually extremely bad for your health, especially if it causes you to skip foods that are high in fiber and vitamins but just happen to contain wheat.

Also, gluten-free foods often have way more fat and much higher calories than their regular counterparts, as manufacturers are trying to compensate for the loss of wheat by packing other ingredients into their foods instead (Consumer Reports).

Many wonder if they will lose weight by gong on a gluten-free diet. Many gluten-free products are not fortified or enriched by such nutrients like folate, iron, and fiber as traditional breads and cereals have been during the last century.

So the answer is maybe, but if you do it’s at a high price. We’ve discussed that gluten-free foods are seriously lacking in critical vitamins and nutrients that you need to be healthy, and many manufacturers are replacing these only with more fats and calories, rather than a healthy substitute for the lost proteins and other vitamins.

By eating gluten-free to be healthier, not only are you misinformed, and missing keys vitamins and nutrients that your body needs, but you a realize unnecessarily eating more empty calories and fat than you realize. You are working backward, and this is extremely counterproductive and dangerous.

Cross-Contamination Problems

For those individuals that have been put on a gluten-free diet by their doctor, there are concerns other than mislabeling and missing information you need to look out for in your food products. Cross-contamination is a big problem amongst food manufacturers, but with the presence of so many other food allergies like peanuts, they are having to be much more careful.

Cross-contamination occurs when gluten-free foods come into contact with other foods that contain gluten. It can happen in many different ways, but one is during the manufacturing process, for example, if the same equipment is used to make a variety of products, some with gluten and some gluten-free.

Because of this problem of cross-contamination, your doctor might also recommend a gluten-free diet that excludes oats. Medical practitioners are divided on whether oats are acceptable for those suffering from celiac disease, or whether there is a danger that they may become cross-contaminated in milling facilities by other grains.

Oats may also be contaminated when grown in rotation with wheat when wheat seeds from the previous harvest sprout up the next season in the oat field and are harvested along with the oats.

But the factories are not the only place where cross-contamination is a danger. This can also occur in your home if foods without gluten are prepared on common surfaces or with utensils that weren't thoroughly cleaned after being used to prepare gluten-containing foods.

Using a common toaster, for example, to toast both gluten-free bread and regular bread is a major source of contamination. You will need to consider what steps you need to take to prevent cross-contamination at home, school or work so this doesn’t happen to you. (Mayo Clinic)

Being completely gluten-free is tough. But if this is something medically necessary to keep you healthy, you figure it out. Taking all of this into consideration, you are now ready for those foods you should be looking for!

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

What Does Gluten-Free Really Mean?

Gluten-Free Options

On a gluten-free diet, there really is a good variety of foods that you are able to eat. However, you’ll have to be a little creative and be willing to try out some new foods and new ways of cooking.

A true gluten-free diet allows for fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, a variety of meats, and many dairy products. You can also enjoy rice, corn, soy, potato, tapioca, beans, sorghum, quinoa, millet, pure buckwheat, arrowroot, amaranth, teff, montina, and nut flours. You’ll have to look in the health food section for some of these.

Several grains and starches are also acceptable for a gluten-free diet. The most frequently used by those seeking this kind of diet are corn, potatoes, rice, and tapioca, as well as some not so common ones like lupin, jowar, taro, chia seed, and yams.

To add back some of the protein and fiber that you are losing without the gluten, you can simply use bean flour, soybean flour, and nut flours, but you may have to go to some of the more common health food chain stores to find them, as these may not be carried by your local grocery stores. Almond flour also has a low glycemic index, along with Gram flour, derived from chickpeas (not the same as Graham flour made from wheat).

Bread, which is a staple in most diets, is traditionally made from grains, such as wheat, that contain gluten. Gluten-free bread is made with ground flours from a variety of materials such as almonds, rice (rice bread), sorghum (sorghum bread), corn (cornbread), or legumes such as beans (bean bread), but since these flours lack gluten it can be difficult for them to retain their shape as they rise and they may be less "fluffy."

Additives such as xanthum gum, guar gum, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC), corn starch, or eggs can be used to compensate for the lack of gluten (, but be careful as many additives contain gluten.

As everyone becomes more familiar with gluten and what it means to be gluten-free, more and more items are being offered that truly are gluten-free. Do your research and be on the lookout for those items.

If this seems a little overwhelming right now, that’s understandable. However, if you have been told by your doctor that this is necessary, he or she will offer you a lot of great information to help you get used to your new diet.

It can be confusing, frustrating, and even difficult at times, but with a little patience, you’ll figure it out and become an expert at quickly and easily knowing what you can eat and what you can’t, and creating amazing recipes without gluten.

If you are creating these meals for your family however, make sure to fill in their plates with items that will make up for the nutrients they will be losing without the gluten. You can do this with simply adding a piece of whole wheat bread, a small side of whole wheat pasta, or some other item that they would enjoy.

Be on the lookout here for some great “gluten-free” recipes that will make you forget you ever knew what gluten was in the first place. To find them, you can check out Enjoy!

Quick Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What percentage of the population in the US is actually gluten-free?
    • 1%
    • 5%
    • 10%
    • 15%
    • 20%
    • 25%

Answer Key

  1. 1%

© 2013 Victoria Van Ness


corinn on May 28, 2016:

I found your article to be informative, but Celiac's is not the only reason that people are gluten-free. As Celiac's is actually considered rare (even though I know several people who have it), a more common reason is Autism. There is a theory out there that gluten can aggravate poor behavior in kids, especially autistic children. Therefore, many psychiatrists will actuall support and/or recommend a gluten-Fred diet for their children. As there's no significant, hard-core proof for this, I used to roll my eyes at this theory...that is, until our out-of-control, seven-year-old foster child was placed with us. At that time, I told my husband that it wouldn't hurt the child to eat less gluten, and perhaps, testing the theory would be worth a try. She wasn't allergic to it, so we chose to do a "significantly reduced-gluten diet." To us, we saw differences in her behavior when she ate high-gluten foods and when she was eating gluten-free foods, and doctors were in support. Another thing happened naturally; she went from an obese seven-year-old to a healthy weight (thin, but good healthy weight for her age/size) at age nine. Now that she has settled down tremendously, we do allow her to eat gluten products, but our favorite gluten-free brand is Glutino, but I didn't see that on your chart. It has delicious cookies, pretzels, crackers, etc.

Peter A Edwards on April 28, 2016:

Love this article, full of rich informative content. Lots of people get that used to micro-dinners and forget about the importance of natural cooking.

It really does take you to be creative, especially when you have been diagnosed with Coeliac / Celiac Disease.

Oh processed food, Stir Fry, I will buy that too eat some day soon.

Q. I am not feeling well, what is wrong with me?

Q. What did you eat?

A. Stir Fry

Q. Did you read the label?

A. No

Q. Well, did you know it contains soy sauce?

A. No

Q. What does that mean?

A. It means it is a hidden form of gluten.

Q. What should I do now?

A. Next time you must read the label.

Q. Will it make a difference?

A. Yes, it will let you know what is in it, as it is marked in bold.

If more people, read what was contained in some store packaged products, they would not buy them. Fruit, Vegetables, Meat, nuts and Eggs are for the most part safe. Only when additives are in them is the problem, for all those that have an intolerance, allergy or illness that is affected by what we eat.

Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on October 29, 2013:

That sounds difficult. Do you have any idea how the allergy came about? I hope that you benefit from the vegetarian and gluten-free recipes I have and will be publishing, even if you need to modify them a bit. Thanks for your comment.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on October 29, 2013:

I am gluten free due to a gluten intolerance. If I have gluten, I become slee py and all my mucous membranes dry out. I am also a vegetarian(for the most part). I make my own ice cream, so I won't get any gluten that way. I have been doing quite well on beans and rice, and since I dropped meat(mostly), my oily skin isn't oily any more. I can also eat a lot more than I did before, since I'm not getting all that fat from meat. I think I'm doing all right. But like you said, it is people with Celiac Disease that have a great deal of problems. I also got my allergy late in life.

Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on October 25, 2013:

In my article I am only trying to inform others about all I have learned in the way of gluten and what a gluten-free diet really is. Feel free to click on my references, or search on your own, to learn more about this new diet concept.

There are many people who really need this diet to stay healthy, and it is for those people that I am providing gluten-free recipes. However, I say that it has become a fad because everyone is seeking to be healthier, just like every other food fad that manufacturers create in an effort to sell food, like Omega-3 and Omega-6 infusion right now.

Being healthy is not a bad thing at all, but quite a courageous effort with all of the junk food available in our culture. However, this diet happens to be extremely dangerous to those that commit themselves to a strictly gluten-free diet, but have not been told by a doctor that they need it as it deprives them of critical vitamins and nutrients.

Kudos to those trying to live healthier and provide healthier food to their families, however, this is not one that is a good idea. With the right information, you will be able to make educated decisions about what is right for your family.

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