You are eating gluten free and planning your first trip to the grocery store but how do you know whether a food is gluten free? Believe it or not, grocery shopping gluten free has never been easier.

Natural food stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, as well as an increasing number of regular supermarkets sell an abundance of foods labeled “gluten-free.” For foods not labeled “gluten-free” you can tell if they are made using gluten-free ingredients by reading the food label.

In general, when determining whether a food product is made using gluten-containing ingredients you are looking for 6 words or ingredients: wheat, barley, rye, oats, malt, and brewer’s yeast. With a few exceptions, if you see any of these words in an ingredient list or a “contains” statement the food is not gluten free.

This simplified label reading is due in large part to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (otherwise known as FALCPA). This act mandates that if an ingredient in a food product contains protein from wheat, the word “wheat” must be included on the food label. FALCPA applies to foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–all foods with the exception of meat products, poultry products, and egg products.

This means that you no longer have to sweat over many of the usual suspect ingredients—modified food starch and dextrin to name a couple. Regardless of whether these ingredients are included in an FDA-regulated food product, if you don’t see the word “wheat” on the label the food does not include any ingredients containing wheat protein. It really is that simple.

FALCPA does not apply to barley, rye, and oats but most ingredients that were questionable in the past were suspect because of the possibility they contained wheat. If barley is contained in a food product the ingredient name will almost always include the word “barley” or “malt”. Ingredients that contain rye and oats will generally include the words “rye” and “oats”.

Like all rules there are exceptions. Occasionally a food product may contain wheat protein or oats and still be labeled “gluten-free.”

If a product containing oats is labeled “gluten-free” then it is made using specially produced oats that have not been contaminated with wheat, barley, or rye. Remember, the reason most oats are avoided on the gluten-free diet is because of contamination. Oats themselves do not contain gluten. In fact, due to contamination issues with oats, you should not eat any oat product that is not labeled “gluten-free.”

Occasionally, you may come across a product labeled “gluten-free” that also has the word “wheat” in the ingredient list or Contains statement. How can this be true? Under FALCPA, if a food product contains any amount of wheat protein the word “wheat” must be included in the ingredient list or Contains statement. Under the FDA’s proposed rule for use of the term gluten-free on food labels, if a product containing wheat protein contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten the product may be labeled “gluten-free.”

Rest assured this is a teeny tiny amount. Studies conducted on the amount of gluten that may be safely consumed without causing damage to the intestine indicate that this amount of gluten is safe.

You may be wondering about foods not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration—meat products, poultry products, and egg products. These foods are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA does not have mandatory allergen labeling at this time but they encourage manufacturers to voluntarily list allergens, including wheat on food labels.

Even with food products regulated by the USDA, there are very few ingredients that should cause you any concern. Modified food starch, dextrin, and starch (in USDA-regulated foods “starch” may mean corn starch or wheat starch) may give you pause if their source is not named. You may want to find another product that does not contain these ingredients or contact the manufacturer to verify gluten-free status.

To read more about The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act and the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed rule for gluten-free labeling, please see the following web pages:,,

This article was originally published in August 2008; updated October, 2011

Copyright © by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD

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How to tell if a food is gluten-free