With the thousands of choices of foods to buy, how do you know what’s gluten free? Here’s a guide, section by section of your grocery store, to steer you towards foods that are smart choices for a gluten free lifestyle.
Before You Go: Four Do-Ahead Steps
A little legwork in advance will save you plenty of time in the store. Try these:
- Research. Get familiar with brands you can count on for gluten-free options; call manufacturers or visit their websites to find out how they verify their products. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet finalized regulations to govern the term "gluten-free," definitions can vary. For example, all General Mills products labeled "gluten-free" have undergone extensive ingredient, manufacturing, and product analysis. Click here for more information on gluten-free labeling.
- Make a list, so you'll pick up only what you need and avoid impulse buys that might not meet your "safe" criteria. Organize it by each section of the supermarket; you'll more quickly through the aisles without back-tracking. Include the brand names of foods you've already found to be gluten-free and delicious, to help you find them faster--but don't forget to re-check their labels, in case their ingredients have changed.
- Bring your cell phone in case you need to call a manufacturer to double check a confusing ingredient or need to verify that their processing methods are truly gluten-free.
- Eat a safe snack if you're hungry. Being surrounded by all those appetizing but not-always-safe foods (and free samples!) will sorely test your resolve if you're starving. Have a snack first that includes a little fiber and protein for staying power--say, apple slices dabbed with peanut butter.
Choosing Smart: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide
With over 40,000 products in the average supermarket – and over 2000 of them gluten-free, you've got plenty of food choices to ponder. Keep the following pointers in mind to navigate each aisle faster.
Colorful fruits and vegetables are a great place to start for gluten free living. Brightly-colored fruits and vegetables are a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals. Produce containing Vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, peppers and kale, can help you absorb Iron—a mineral that can be hard to get in gluten free diets. Folate is another B vitamin easy to be deficient on, if living gluten-free. Leafy greens are great sources of folate. Starchy vegetables including potatoes and squash are naturally gluten-free and can fill you up and take the place of pasta or other gluten-containing side dishes.
Calcium is important for strong bones for everyone—even more so if you have gluten intolerance, since you have a greater risk of developing weak bones. Besides the usual choices of dairy products, you can find good sources of calcium in leafy greens, broccoli, and tofu (calcium-processed).
Meat/Fish & Dairy
Get enough Vitamin B12 for the development of red blood cells and to maintain a healthy nervous system by choosing meats, poultry (naturally gluten free) in addition to eggs and dairy products. Some meats and poultry can be enhanced with broths and flavorings that can contain gluten. Imitation crab (surimi) can be surprisingly guilty. Check labels to ensure no ingredients containing gluten were added. Marinated meats are other guilty culprits, unless specifically labeled “gluten free.”
Canned salmon and sardines are great gluten free choices for protein as well as calcium. Go for the fresh, natural choices such as milk, natural cheeses and regular eggs (in shells) for calcium and other nutrients. Read labels carefully on processed cheeses, yogurt, enhanced milks or egg substitutes to be sure they don’t contain thickeners or additives with gluten. Many more products are becoming gluten free or are labeled gluten free, if they don’t contain gluten, to make it easier for shoppers to find these products.
Baking/Pastas and Grain Choices
The choices for gluten-free flours and pastas are becoming greater as people’s interest in eating gluten free rises. Look for fortified versions of these whenever possible—to help you get important nutrients you may be missing. Gluten free grains like rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet, sorghum and buckwheat can help fill your plate without adding hidden gluten. Try to buy whole versions like brown rice, whole grain hominy, grits and cornmeal to get the benefits of all the vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients that whole grains provide. Just steer clear of the bulk bins where cross- contamination with other non-gluten free bins can easily happen. If someone uses the same scoop to get wheat-based pasta (which isn’t gluten free) and then it’s used for rice flour (which is gluten free)—oops! The rice flour has been contaminated!
Cereals, Breads and Crackers
Wheat-based flour and breads, cereals and crackers made from it are terrific sources of the B vitamins, fiber and Iron. Unfortunately they are a mecca for gluten. But luckily, there are more and more gluten free versions becoming available, so there’s lots to choose from and something for everyone. Choose fortified types whenever possible and ones with extra fiber to boost the nutritional value. Read labels carefully to be sure they are truly gluten free, as “wheat-free” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gluten free.
Prepared Foods, Soups and Beans
Be wary! Look for prepared foods and soups that are specifically labeled gluten free. Broths, thickeners and flavorings typically added to these foods can contain gluten-so read labels carefully. Beans are another naturally gluten free choice for carbohydrates, iron and fiber. If you buy the canned variety, be sure to choose the plain (unsauced) ones, as the sauces may contain thickeners which contain gluten.
Spices, Condiments and Sauces
Ok, this is where it gets tough. Gluten is everywhere in these products. Even if the foods don’t contain gluten, they may have been processed in facilities that process foods that contain gluten. If you’re not sure—call the manufacturer. If the ingredient listing includes something vague, such as “seasonings” you may also wish to contact the manufacturer to find out if the product contains gluten or not , as some seasonings can have gluten-based starches to prevent clumping. Flavorings, gravies, salad dressings, sauce mixes, sauces such as barbecue, teriyaki or sweet and sour can be hidden sources of gluten.
Choose plain versions of fruits and vegetables—as anything in a sauce may contain thickeners or flavorings that have gluten. Frozen entrees, French fries and breaded items like chicken fingers or fish sticks may contain gluten (or wheat-based foods which contain gluten) unless specifically labeled gluten free. Yes, even ice creams, frozen yogurt and frozen novelties may be culprit to the addition of hidden gluten! They can contain gluten-based starches to help prevent ice crystals from forming—so read those labels to be sure.
Author Joyce Hendley, who holds a Master's in Nutrition, is a freelance health writer and contributing editor at EatingWell magazine.