Mind & Body

Why Does Food That Already Doesn't Contain Gluten Say Gluten-Free?

A "gluten-free" label on something like potato chips, licorice, or oats is one of those bizarre cultural quirks that makes some people shake their heads and wonder what society has come to. Potatoes, sugar, and oats already don't contain gluten, you might exclaim! That gluten-free label is just a cheap marketing tactic! In fact, that gluten-free label is a lot more necessary than you might think.

Coming Un-Glutened

Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. You know it best in its effects on bread: it forms a protein web that makes bread dough elastic and traps carbon dioxide bubbles to help bread bake to a fluffy, chewy consistency. Importantly, it's also used as a stabilizer in some packaged foods.

When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their bodies attack the lining of the small intestine and prevent it from absorbing nutrients. In the long term, this can cause a host of other medical problems, from vitamin and mineral deficiencies to serious conditions like Type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS). The primary reason for the gluten-free label is to help people with celiac, according to the FDA, but it can help other people too. That includes people sensitive to gluten — though that's a controversial diagnosis that may be due to other factors — and those who believe avoiding gluten will afford them some variety of questionable benefits.

Rye-Crossed Lovers

But if gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley, why would potato chips, licorice, oats, or even bottled water bear a "gluten-free" label? For two reasons. First of all, the products that contain gluten are often ones you'd never expect. Cross-contamination can happen to any food that's produced on the same equipment as food that contains gluten. Lay's potato chips should be naturally gluten-free, for example, but the Frito-Lay website warns "Although our lines are cleaned between production runs, Frito-Lay has not tested these products for gluten content and the ingredients in these products may have come into contact with gluten-containing products prior to manufacturing."

Oats, too, could come into contact with gluten when they're grown near or transported with other grains. And licorice? Well, all you need to do is read the label to see that Red Vines has wheat flour listed as the second ingredient. There are plenty of other examples of food that unexpectedly contains gluten: soy sauce, non-dairy creamer, salami, cold cuts, salad dressings, soups, hard candies ... it's a long list.

In 2014, the United States FDA enacted a law that said any food bearing a gluten-free label must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. (Why not zero? Because current testing technology can't measure below that threshold, and experts say that amount of gluten "has been shown to be tolerated by those with celiac disease.") That includes FDA-regulated food and supplements; alcohol is covered by another agency, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has similar gluten labeling rules. The labels are voluntary, and it's up to manufacturers to assess the gluten content of their products, though the FDA periodically inspects them to make sure.

There's also no rule against labeling naturally gluten-free products as being gluten-free — thus the label you'll see on things like spring water and tomatoes. Manufacturers will always try to label their products in the way that increases sales, but not every gluten-free label you see is a matter of marketing. There's a group of people it truly helps.

For gluten-free dishes that taste like the real deal, check out "The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook: Revolutionary Techniques. Groundbreaking Recipes" by America's Test Kitchen. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

What the Heck Is Gluten?

Written by Ashley Hamer June 1, 2018

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