The question of blue cheese and the potential for it to contain gluten keeps popping up probably because it is difficult to get a satisfactory answer. Blue cheese is a general term for veined cheeses that are made using blue mold spores called penicillium roqueforti. Blue cheeses include Roquefort (France), Stilton (Britain), Gorgonzola (Italy), and Danish Blue (Denmark). Other types of penicillium spores, such as penicillium camemberti are used to make cheeses such as brie and camembert. These mold spores may be grown on various mediums.
If on-line articles on cheese making are to be believed, spores used to make Roquefort may be grown (occasionally) on bread that may be either 100% rye flour or mixtures of rye and wheat flours. However, there is no mention of the medium used to grow spores on the Roquefort Society website. If penicillium roqueforti spores were grown on a medium containing wheat, and the spores contained wheat protein, then under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) wheat would have to be listed on the label of a blue cheese. Sargento states on their website that their blue cheese contains wheat gluten but the source of wheat is unclear. If penicillium roqueforti spores were grown on 100% rye bread, and the spores contained rye protein, this generally would not be stated on the food label (rye is not included under FALCPA).
However, it is hard to imagine that purified spores of penicillium roqueforti would contain intact gluten protein. If they did, the amount undoubtedly would be exceedingly small. Given the very small amount of spores used in cheese making, the final cheese product would be unlikely to contain 20 ppm or more gluten.
Nonetheless, the only way to be absolutely certain is to contact the producers of Roquefort cheese in France and ascertain the growth medium used for their penicillium roqueforti spores and then test samples of products that use 100% rye bread. This would be a daunting task indeed!
In my opinion, blue cheese is safe for persons with celiac disease to eat unless the label contains the words wheat, barley, rye, oats, or malt or the company states their product is not gluten free.
Update: In 2009 The Canadian Celiac Association tested 3 blue cheeses and 2 penicillium roqueforti cultures grown on a variety of gluten-containing media, including wheat-based dextrose, barley malt extract, and wheat/rye flour mixture. Results indicate that the gluten content is below the limit of quantification in these products using both the Sandwich R5 ELISA and the Competitive R5 ELISA (29). For more information on this study, see http://www.glutenfreediet.ca/img/bluecheese.pdf .
Copyright © by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD
Originally published June 2008. Last updated February 3, 2011.