What Does it Mean to Be Gluten-Free?

Gluten-free food products are a popular option for individuals who avoid grain-based products out of preference or health sensitivities. Before you start shopping for gluten-free options, it’s important to understand what gluten-free actually means, especially when it comes to product packaging and labeling. How can you be sure that an item truly contains no gluten or traces of gluten?

There are quite a few nuances involved in finding just the right products based on the labeling. For example, "no gluten ingredients" can mean something entirely different than "certified gluten-free." Here is a breakdown of what to look for to find the products that you need.

Gluten is a type of naturally occurring protein found in many grain-based foods. While it’s often associated with bread, cereals, and other wheat products, gluten can be found in a much wider range of products. This means that avoiding it in your day-to-day shopping may go far beyond simply avoiding wheat or flour as an ingredient.

A product labeled gluten-free ensures that it contains no gluten, or that any amount of gluten is small enough to be insubstantial to a gluten-sensitive person's health. This includes foods that have been made specifically to avoid gluten or don't contain gluten naturally. Gluten-free foods must also be processed on different equipment as products that do contain gluten to avoid the risk of cross-contamination.

Using product labels to quickly find gluten-free products can be relatively simple. While there is no specific place on a package that the label must be placed, it’s usually made easy for consumers to spot in most cases.

The Gluten-Free Mall® carries a wide selection of certified gluten-free products – from breads to full, ready-to-make meals, we have what you need to make grocery shopping simple.

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The Food and Drug Administration holds specific standards that a product must meet in order to use their labels. The most notable criteria of an FDA approved gluten-free product are that it contains less than 20 parts per million (PPM) of gluten. Any food product with over 20 PPM of gluten would not meet the FDA’s labeling standards. This requirement was first put in place in 2013 and still remains in force.

Unfortunately, FDA Gluten-free labeling is not standardized and may take on many different fonts, logos, and appearances from product to product.

There are third-party organizations that also offer labeling and certification for gluten-free products. These products are often referred to as "Certified Gluten-Free." While the FDA is largely uninvolved in these certifications, they can still be credible and useful for shoppers. Depending on the organization that offers it, gluten-free certifications can mean different things.

There are a few major organizations that test products for gluten-free certification. The most notable ones being:

  • Gluten Intolerance Group's Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO)
  • BRC Global Standards (BRCGS)
  • NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International

While there are other organizations that offer professional approval for gluten-free products, these are the most credible and widely known organizations.

When shopping for gluten-free products you will likely run into at least one of, if not all, labels belonging to these groups.

The testing standards of each third-party Gluten-Free Certification vary from organization to organization. Understanding the differences can be important, especially if you are a person with very specific sensitivities. Depending on your preferences, some independent certifications may be even more helpful than the FDA.

Many of these programs also revisit or reexamine products and manufacturing equipment periodically to ensure that foods are still up to their standards of being gluten-free.

Being able to tell the difference between the different kinds of labels can help you better understand what a product has to offer.

Most labels include a specific logo as well as state which organization has certified the product. The logo may only include the organization's acronym rather than the full name. For example, the National Sanitation Foundation is simply labeled as NSF.

Memorizing all the different labels associated with gluten-free products can take some time. When in doubt, you can always double-check the list of ingredients on a product as well as look up the label itself to find more information.

The Gluten-Free Mall makes identifying gluten-free products quick and easy. Learn more about our badge system to quickly identify whether an item is gluten-free, paleo, vegan, and more!

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One thing to keep in mind is that there can be a lot of deviation between the meaning of "Gluten-Free" on product packing as opposed to "No Gluten Ingredients."

While Gluten-Free labeling must meet either the FDA or third-party standard of containing little to no gluten, there is no such rule applying to labeling food as containing no gluten ingredients.

Keep in mind that gluten-free also accounts for the equipment a product was manufactured on as well as considering products where processes have been completed to remove gluten from foods that may have otherwise contained it.

"No Gluten Ingredients" is a much looser and less regulated term that generally only specifies that no wheat or other high-gluten grains are an ingredient. In many cases, these products still contain some amount of gluten, just not a major gluten product.

Finding the Products You Need

While the different types of labels and certifications used to identify gluten-free products can be confusing, they can also be very useful once you have an understanding of how they work. Keep in mind that these labels are ultimately created to make it easier for you to find the products you need.

The Gluten-Free Mall® makes shopping for gluten-free foods simple. From fresh to frozen, we have a large selection of products from trusted certified gluten-free brands!