The only treatment for someone diagnosed with celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. This may seem hard at first because many common foods contain gluten. However, there are many naturally gluten-free foods as well as plenty of gluten-free substitutes to choose from. (See What Can I Eat?)
The key to following the gluten-free diet is to be a good label reader. Although some foods might appear gluten-free, many may actually contain hidden sources of gluten in the ingredients list. (See Sources of Gluten). It is important to read food labels every time you purchase or consume a product since manufacturers are able to change the ingredients at any time.
How to tell if a product is gluten-free
1. A gluten-free label. If a product claims to be gluten-free on the package, then it is most likely safe to eat. However, you should still check the ingredients list. It is also important to remember that “wheat-free” does not necessarily mean “gluten-free.”
2. Check the allergen listing. Some packaging has a list of common allergens found in the product. Such allergens include wheat, soy, egg, nuts, and milk. This list can be a quick way to rule something out if the package says: “contains wheat.” However, a lack of allergen labeling does NOT mean that the product is gluten-free. Barley and rye are not in the top eight allergens required to be listed. Be sure to check the ingredients list for other hidden sources of gluten.
3. Check for obvious ingredients.
- Brewer’s yeast
- Oats (unless specifically labeled gluten-free)
If there is not a “gluten-free” label on the product packaging, read the ingredients label thoroughly. See our page on Sources of Gluten for further information on which grains and ingredients contain gluten.
4. Check for hidden or questionable ingredients. Some ingredients have the potential to contain gluten. See Sources of Gluten for a list of ingredients that you should watch out for.
5. Check for the possibility of cross-contamination. Foods with labels such as “produced on equipment shared with wheat products” may not be safe, because of potential cross-contamination. Foods with labels along the lines of “produced in a facility that also manufactures wheat products” may only be safe to consume for those with less sensitivity. The consumption of such products should be considered carefully and individually. Food manufacturers are required to abide by Good Manufacturing Practices outlined in the FDA Code of Federal Regulations to reduce the risk of contamination in manufacturing. If you have any doubts, don’t hesitate to contact manufacturers to clarify labeling.
6. When in doubt, go without! If you have any doubts about whether a product is truly gluten-free, skip it! It is not worth triggering your immune system and damaging your small intestine–remember, if you have celiac disease, tiny amounts of gluten can cause damage to your small intestine even if you don’t experience any symptoms.