To maintain a healthy lifestyle, it is important to consume a variety of foods. United States Department of Agriculture identifies five different categories of food: Grains, Protein, Milk and Dairy Products, Fruits and Vegetables, and Fats and Sugars (1).
There are frequent lists posted of gluten-free food options but sometimes it may be harder to determine what foods do contain gluten. Take a look at the five food categories below and the foods, although the lists are not exhaustive, in those categories that contain gluten.
Foods That Contain Gluten
While sometimes grains get a bad reputation, they are one of the macronutrient groups that provide energy for working muscles and fuel for the central nervous system. Grains are an important source of dietary fiber, several B vitamins, and some minerals. Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, or barley are considered to be in the grains food category. Within this food category, there are two subgroups: whole grains and refined grains. Refined grains offer fewer health benefits than whole grains. Consuming whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease, reduce constipation, and help with weight management (1). It can be challenging to find foods in the grain category that do not contain gluten. Here are some foods you will want to avoid if you are trying to eat gluten-free:
- Wheat germ
- Graham flour
- Kamut Matzo
- Oats (unless certified Gluten-Free)
According to the USDA, foods made from meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas (also in the Fruits and Vegetables category), eggs (also in the Milk and Dairy Products category), processed soy products, nuts, and seeds make up the protein category (1). While protein is a very important food group, it is important to keep in mind when selecting a protein that many foods in this category can be high in fat and cholesterol. Protein contains nutrients like B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, EPA and DHA (typically found in fish) that function as a building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, and skin. Fresh meat like fish, beef, chicken, turkey, and others do not contain gluten; however, when you start packaging any of these meats or including them in other foods there is a chance you will find gluten involved. While this is not an exhaustive list, consider these protein items that contain gluten:
- Canned Baked Beans
- Hot Dogs
- Cold Cuts
- Veggie Burgers
- Most substitute meats
- Roasted Nuts
Milk and Dairy Products
Milk, products made from milk (i.e. cream cheese, yogurt, butter), and milk substitutes can be included in this category. One of the most common and well-known nutrients associated with consuming milk and dairy products is calcium. Calcium is essential for building bones and teeth. Consuming healthy amounts of calcium is especially important in children who are building bone mass and for older adults who might be at risk for osteoporosis. Another nutrient that you can find in dairy products, and especially milk substitutes like soymilk, is potassium. Potassium can be helpful in maintaining a healthy blood pressure (1). Similar to the protein category, it is important to keep in mind the fat and cholesterol content of the food you consume from this category. Too much fat and “bad cholesterol” quickly outweighs the health benefits that foods in this category offer.
While some people suggest that most unflavored cow’s milk and cow’s milk products are gluten-free, other people believe that it is important to consider what the animal is being fed. There have been studies showing that gluten can pass through a mother’s milk which suggests that it is likely that cows who are grain-fed instead of grass-fed may have higher levels of gluten in their milk. It is also important to keep in mind that some dairy products may contain thickening agents that are made with grains (2). The following dairy products contain gluten:
- Processed Cheese (i.e. Velveeta)
- Non-Dairy Creamers
- Egg Substitute
- Commercially prepared chocolate milk
- Malted Milk
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and Vegetables make up one of the most important food groups and should account for 50% of your daily food intake. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat and sodium while also containing high levels of nutrients. Fresh fruits and vegetables are important for your diet because they contain potassium, dietary fibers, vitamin C, vitamin A, folic acid, and many other nutrients (1).
Fresh fruits and vegetables naturally contain no gluten; however, when you start purchasing canned, frozen, or processed fruits and vegetables you may find that it contains gluten. It is important to read the labels carefully and all the listed ingredients. You will want to keep in mind and look for the lesser known ingredients that contain gluten: avena sativa cyclodextrin, dextrin, fermented grain extract, hordeum distichon, hordeum vulgare, hydrolysate, hydrolyzed malt extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, maltodextrin, phytosphingosine extract, samino peptide complex, secale cereal, triticum aestivum, triticum vulgare, tocopherol/vitamin E, yeast extract, natural flavoring, brown rice syrup, modified food starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP,) hydrolyzed soy protein, caramel color (frequently made from barley) (3).
Fats and Sugars
Food from this category should be consumed sparingly and with great consideration. Similar to grains, fats often get a bad reputation for being unhealthy. While it is true that some fats are very harmful to your body, certain healthy fats are essential for maintaining optimum health. Essential fatty acids are necessary for growth and cell functions but cannot be made by any of our body’s processes so we must find ways to include essential fatty acids in what we eat. Our nervous system relies heavily on fat as it is a part of myelin, the sheath that wraps around nerve cells and helps to relay electrical signals. However, it is important to keep in mind that the amount of fat you need is only 5% of the total calories you consume in a day (4).
While there are some natural, unprocessed foods that are high in fat (i.e. avocados, nut butters, oils) a lot of fats and sugars are more processed. If you are looking to find gluten-free foods in this category look for more natural, unprocessed options. A lot of the more processed options contain some of the lesser-known ingredients that contain gluten like caramel color or dextrin. Consider some of these foods in the fat and sugars category that contain gluten:
- Soy sauce
- Ice cream
- Cheesecake filling (some recipes contain wheat)
- Fruit fillings
- Instant hot drinks
- Frosted Flakes
- Raisin Bran
- Rice Krispies
- Sun Chips
If you are embarking on the journey to eat gluten-free, you will find it easiest to avoid gluten by eating whole, unprocessed foods. If you have to eat more processed foods from any of the five different categories listed above, remember to closely read the ingredients looking for any of the lesser recognized ingredients that may include gluten.