How to find out if a food is gluten-free
10/02/07 UPDATE: Tater Tots DO appear to be gluten-free. You can read more about that in this post: https://onlysometimesclever.wordpress.com/2007/10/02/confusion-about-the-gluten-free-ness-of-ore-idas-tater-tots/ )
I get lots of searchers who stumble upon this blog trying to find out if oranges or sugar or Trix or Tater Tots or whatever is gluten-free.
Some foods, specially those that are single ingredients, should be easy to tell. Corn, rice, potatoes, dairy, meat, fruits, veggies and many alternative grains are all g.f. But, when you start talking about foods that are made of several ingredients, it gets iffy. And, it can be terribly brand-specific. For instance, your store brand to “tater nuggets” very well may be gluten-free, while the Tater Tots name brand, made by Ore-Ida, is not! Some taco seasoning is gluten free, like McCormick, but others, like Lawry’s, are not (McCormick, unfortunately, is not dairy/casein free, though… but that’s a whole ‘nother topic). So, just to ask, “Are Tater Tots gluten free?” or, “Is taco seasoning gluten-free?” isn’t enough. You have to know which Tater Tots you’re talking about, and which taco seasoning. It’s all very complex and can be extremely confusing.
Here are my suggestions:
- You must read labels. Lots and lots and lots of labels. All the time. Even for foods which you regularly purchase. Ingredient lists can change, production processes can change, company policies can change…. You must be a regular reader of ingredient labels.
- Arm yourself with lists of gluten-free and NON-gluten-free ingredients, so you know what to look for on those labels. Five years ago, when I first started on a g.f. diet, I printed these lists out, carried them everywhere, and reviewed them frequently.
- Call manufacturers’ toll-free phone numbers, usually listed on the back of a product. Visit their websites and look for a “special diets” section, or the like. MANY food manufacturers now have a list on their website of foods that are gluten-free. Five years ago, I used to pray that the customer service rep on the other end of the phone had heard of gluten; it used to not be well-known. But in the last year or two, I can’t remember coming across any ignorance; most phone reps are extrordinarily helpful.
- Become acquainted with companies that are special-diet-friendly. For instance, both Kraft and General Mills are very helpful to those on gluten-free diets. Kellogg’s and Campbell’s are NOT. (General Mills doesn’t have info on their website, but I have found both their phone and e-mail reps to be very helpful and knowledgable. Campbell’s doesn’t have info on gluten on its website, either, though you can request a list of g.f. products, which they will send, snailmail. However, they list foods containing MSG as “gluten-free.” MSG often does contain gluten due to the manufacturing process. Also, for special-diet questions, Campbell’s basic stance is for consumers to educate themselves, sending questioners offsite to a food allergen website. IOW, they are not going to make it easy for consumers by providing information, or developing products that accomodates those on special diets.) Smaller companies vary widely. You will find some (like Lundberg Farms) which are hyper-aware of gluten issues, prominently label their packages, and educate their employees. On the other end of the spectrum, some small companies seem rather offended when one inquires about gluten issues, and have obviously no idea if their ingredients and products are g.f..
- Purchase magazines (like Living Without) or books that help you both discover new g.f. products, and avoid gluten-containing ones. All the g.f. cookbooks I’ve seen have some tips and instruction about gluten-free foods, and many of them have extensive glossaries with info on websites and addresses of useful resources.
- Get used to cooking and baking for yourself, or your family member who has celiac disease. Simple foods, made from scratch at home are your best bet to keep your diet gluten-free.
- Be aware that the food labelling standards vary GREATLY from country to country. So, if you’re travelling outside of the U.S., do your best to educate yourself in advance about how friendly the country is to g.f. issues. Generally, though, most countries, world-wide, are much more aware of celiac disease and gluten than the U.S. is, and it’s quite easy to travel to the U.K. and Europe and maintain a g.f. diet. For instance, I didn’t find out until I’d ordered some odd-tasting sausage at the airport in Inverness, Scotland, that the British government typically only requires sausage to be around 7-10% meat. The rest of the sausage typically comes from oats and bread. However, even out in the remotest of countryside villages, the gluten-free section of the Scottish grocery stores typically have more product than large, American city grocery stores.
- If you’re really scared, consider ordering from a website that features gluten-free or allergy/intolerance-friendly foods, like Gluten Free Mall. Or, find a local natural foods store, if you have one in your area. Many carry extensive g.f. offerings, and many times the staff can help guide you, or at least refer you to someone who might be able to help.
- Find a gluten-free friend, ideally one IRL, and one who has been g.f. for a while. I think I’ve shown my pantry to 3-4 people over the years who have been recently dx’ed with celiac disease and feel like they can’t eat anything. It’s really helpful to have someone show you the g.f. ropes, and who can alert you to local products you may not have known even existed!
- If all else fails, read the label again. 😛