I recently received a few emails asking my opinion on caramel color and whether it is okay to include this ingredient in a gluten-free diet when it is derived from wheat. In my opinion the answer is “yes.” What follows is a basic primer on caramel color.
What is caramel color?
Caramel is a color additive that is made by heating any number of carbohydrates. According to the Food and Drug Administration’s Code of Federal Regulations carbohydrates that may be used to produce caramel color are dextrose, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, starch hydrolysates (such as glucose syrup) and fractions thereof, and sucrose.
What products contain caramel color?
Caramel color is found in a wide variety of products, including carbonated beverages, baked goods, cooked meat products, sauces, soups, and alcoholic beverages.
Is caramel color ever derived from wheat?
Yes. DD Williamson is one of the largest manufacturers of caramel color with manufacturing plants in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. DD Williamson (UK) uses syrup derived from wheat, corn, or beet to manufacturer caramel color. However, in their North and South American plants, neither wheat nor gluten is used as a starting material for caramel color.
For more information about DD Williamson, see
Does caramel color made from wheat-based glucose syrup contain gluten?
I am not aware of any studies that have assessed the gluten content of caramel color. Studies that have assessed the gluten content of wheat-based glucose syrups have found very low levels of gluten.
For more information on these studies, see
Can caramel color derived from wheat be included in a gluten-free diet?
In areas of the world where wheat-based caramel color is more commonly used, the opinion appears to be yes.
In 2007, the European Union permanently excluded from allergen labeling wheat-based glucose syrups including dextrose and products thereof (meaning products such as caramel color which may be made by heating wheat-based glucose syrup). As part of this exemption the starch industry agreed to a “Code of Good Practice” regarding the purification of wheat starch hydrolysates (e.g., glucose syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin) and committed to a maximum gluten level of 20 parts per million of gluten for these products.
For more information, see
The Australian Food Standards Code requires all ingredients derived from wheat, barley, rye, and oats to be identified. If caramel is derived from wheat, the ingredient list will read “caramel color from wheat” or some other similar wording. Regardless, according to the Celiac Society of Australia, “some ingredients are so highly processed, that they are gluten free even though a gluten source is indicated.” These highly processed ingredients include caramel color from wheat (as well as glucose and glucose syrup from wheat and dextrose from wheat.)
Also, keep in mind that under the FDA’s proposed rule for gluten-free labeling, starch hydrolysates (such as glucose syrup and products made from glucose syrup, such as caramel color) may be included in foods labeled gluten free as long as the finished product contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten.
Are there any products available in the U.S. that contain caramel color derived from wheat?
I have come across products imported from Australia that contain caramel color derived from wheat. Imported alcohols, such as whiskey also may contain caramel color derived from wheat.
How can you tell if the caramel color in a product is derived from wheat?
Under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act any packaged food sold in the United States and regulated by the FDA, including imported foods, must state on the label if an ingredient contains protein from wheat. If you see the words “caramel color” on an FDA-regulated food product and the word “wheat” is not included in the ingredients list or the Contains statement the caramel color does not contain wheat protein. At this time, allergen labeling of USDA-regulated foods (meat products, poultry products, egg products) is voluntary and not mandatory. Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that a meat, poultry, or egg product sold in the US would contain wheat-based caramel color.
At the present time, allergen labeling of alcoholic beverages is voluntary. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau is conducting rulemaking on allergen labeling of alcoholic beverages. The proposed regulation closely follows the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act and states that all major food allergens used in the production of wine, distilled spirits, and malt beverages, including food allergens used as fining or processing agents, must be declared on the label. For more information please see the post entitled Allergen Labeling of Alcoholic Beverages.
It is exceedingly rare to come across food products in the US that contain caramel color derived from wheat. In my opinion, caramel color even if it is derived from wheat is not an ingredient that individuals on a gluten-free diet should worry about–including me!
Copyright © by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD
Originally published November 2009. Last updated February 3, 2011.
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