The best way to determine if a product is gluten-free is to contact the manufacturer. Reading labels only tells part of the story; you can determine if a food contains gluten by looking at the label, but you cannot determine if it is gluten-free; this is true even with the labeling law that went into effect in January 2006: only wheat is specified on the label, not barley, oats, or rye. Very small amounts of ingredients may not be listed on the label; products may also be processed with ingredients (i.e., flour on the conveyor belt) that are not listed on the label or processed in a facility that also processes gluten-containing products, and this is not always listed on the label.
First thing, check the label to see if it says “gluten-free” anywhere. This can be on the front, back, by the ingredients, buried in a paragraph of information about how great the product is, in big letters, in small letters; there is no standard. Even if it says gluten-free, you still have to check the label. Some manufacturers consider their products gluten-free, even if they contain wheat, as long as they test at below 20 parts per million of gluten. For some people who only avoid most gluten, this may be acceptable, but for most celiacs it is not.
If the label does not state that the product is gluten-free, read through the ingredient list for obvious sources of gluten. Direct mention of wheat, rye, or barley means the food contains gluten and is not suitable for a gluten-free diet. Oats is also a questionable ingredient as well because of the likelihood of oats containing gluten through cross contamination. All other foods should be checked in one of the following ways to determine if the product is gluten-free.
If the label states that the product is processed in a facility that also processes wheat or if it is produced on the same lines as a product that contains wheat or gluten, the product should not be considered gluten-free without further investigation, even if the label indicates that good manufacturing processes are used to separate ingredients (more about this below). In many cases, these products may be acceptable, so don’t eliminate a product just because of that statement. Once you have determined by examining the label that the product contains no obvious gluten, you must begin to investigate the product.
One good way to find out if the product is gluten-free is to look at a gluten-free product list; this is an especially useful tool for those new to the diet as you will need to check a large number of products. A reputable list will clearly delineate the methods they use to determine if a product is gluten-free. Look for a list that gets its information directly from the manufacturer and keeps the information current by re-checking the products every couple of years. Make sure that the list indicates when an item is produced in a shared facility. A good indication of a reputable list is that they will list a “last checked” date for each item. Some lists online are free; if you find a free list, make sure it is reputable. Some online lists have a fee or subscription cost; carefully evaluate the list criteria and costs before signing up. Also try to get a sample of their lists; some lists are regional or do not contain a wide variety of foods and brands. Lists that can be accessed by cell phone are also available. You can also order printed lists (see list of national groups for more on how to get these).
To find the status of a product without the help of a list, start by looking on the manufacturer’s web site. Often you will find information about gluten in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) or ingredient information. Some companies have a gluten-free statement. If there is no mention of gluten or if it is unclear, send the manufacturer an e-mail (look for the address in the “Contact Us” or consumer information sections). You can also search the web for other references to the product. Type in the name of the product and the words “gluten-free”. If you do this, make sure the information you get is reliable. If someone says, “I use that all the time and have no problem with it”, consider that insufficient. If someone references a recent letter or communication from the manufacturer, that is more reliable.
If all of the above methods fail or if you don’t have internet access, check the package to see if there is a phone number for the manufacturer that you can call (you can skip the internet and try this first). If there is no phone number on the package, there is almost always a city and state for the manufacturer. Use this to call information (411) and find out the area code. Then you can dial the manufacturer’s area code plus 555-1212; this gets you to that area code’s information where you can ask for the manufacturer’s phone number (you can also try this with the 800 area code to try for a toll-free number). Alternatively, if there is an address on the package, you can write a letter.
The most likely department to know about the product’s gluten-free status is consumer relations. Make sure that whoever you talk to understands what gluten-free means (most manufacturers who have a phone number on their product are very familiar with the term and the GF status of their products). Once you have found the right person to talk to, first ask if they know if the product is gluten-free; if not, you may have to explain. Most companies have a list of gluten-free products or a policy on allergen labeling. If not, ask if the product contains any wheat, barley, rye, or oats, or if any of its ingredients or additives contain or are made from any of those grains.
When checking a product you should determine if cross contamination is an issue. If other gluten-containing products are manufactured in the same facility, ask what steps they take to prevent cross contamination. If loose flour mixed, poured or handled in the facility, consider that a red flag indicating a high likelihood of contamination. For fried foods, ask if the oil used for any gluten products. If products are produced on a shared line, what steps are taken to clean it between batches? Even a well-cleaned line can retain traces of gluten that may contaminate the first few batches of next product run on that line. How well do companies check their ingredients for gluten? Do they have procedures in place to identify ingredients to prevent accidental contamination? If you do not get satisfactory information from the manufacturer, the likelihood that the product is contaminated is high. Only the most aware and dedicated manufacturers can produce truly gluten-free products in a shared facility. Try to find a replacement product that can be confirmed as gluten-free. If there are no replacements, be very cautious with the product. Do not eat any other questionable food at the same time so that any reaction can clearly be attributed to the newly introduced item.
When you get a prescription filled, be sure to ask the pharmacist if it is gluten-free. A good pharmacist will call the manufacturer to determine if is gluten-free for you. You can also check out www.glutenfreedrugs.com for more information about gluten in drugs. There are a few online lists, such as Clan Thompson, that list pharmaceuticals. Stokes Pharmacy in New Jersey will formulate gluten-free drugs for you if none are commercially available.