What does “Gluten free” mean?

Updated – August 2021 with more details and explinations.

In my mind, gluten-free means any food item free from any gluten-containing ingredient. However, that probably isn’t good enough for everyone. So, the United States Food and Drug Administration clarified the definition of gluten-free. Today is all about labels!

Rules from FDA

Gluten-free has a technical definition per the US government. Besides the 20ppm designation, there is more. Gluten-free has a three-part definition. To meet the gluten-free standard, a food must meet all three criteria:

  • an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains,
  • an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten, or
  • an ingredient derived from these grains that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten

This definition also applies to any foods in restaurants.

Note that none of these rules discuss cross-contamination, shared lines, or shared manufacturing equipment. Naturally gluten-free items such as fresh fruits and vegetables can be labeled gluten-free as long as they don’t come into contact with items that are greater than 20ppm.

The FDA does not require the food item tested for a food item to be labeled gluten-free.

Also, a few countries, especially Australia and New Zealand, have much stricter limits. Australia and New Zealand require 0ppm for a food item to carry the gluten-free label. Europe has standards for “low gluten” and “gluten-free” designations. Much of the rest of the world adheres to the 20ppm designation for a gluten-free label.

Remember that studies were done to determine what level of gluten is safe for those with celiac disease. Here is a link to that study and another.

Certified Gluten Free

Certified gluten-free means that a company has voluntarily paid for their item to be tested. Testing ensures the food item has below 20ppm of gluten.

Many companies offer this certification. Each company determines the maximum amount of ppm to achieve certification. Some companies require a maximum of 5ppm and others of 10ppm. But all of them will be below the FDA’s 20ppm maximum threshold for gluten-free labeling.

Certified gluten-free are the safest products to consume.

No gluten containing ingredients

There are many companies that are now talking about their products that “have no gluten-containing ingredients” but will not label their item gluten-free. Because “gluten-free” has a technical definition they are afraid to label their items gluten-free.

This begs the question – do you trust a company to ensure something is gluten-free when they won’t label it? For some companies, I do. For others, I don’t. Everyone has to make their choices.

Wheat is the only gluten-containing grain in the top 8 allergens. If wheat is in the product, it must be disclosed. However, rye and barley are not in the top 8 allergens and would not be disclosed in bold on the label. So, a product could have no wheat but still be a gluten-containing item. Read labels every time.

Also, remember, that gluten can go by a variety of names. There are lists of alternate names for gluten all over the internet.

Food Additives

Maltodextrin, caramel color, and various other ingredients are commonly discussed to have “hidden” gluten. Any wheat in a product must be disclosed. Wheat is cheap. Rye and barley are significantly more costly as ingredients. Rye and barley won’t be as common food additives as wheat.


Restaurants are under the same FDA rules and if we ever get back to restaurants, there may be some changes. Menu items are starting to show up as “Gluten friendly” or “Gluten reduced” rather than “gluten-free”.

“Gluten friendly” or “gluten reduced” does not necessarily mean “gluten-free”. It means “Ask more questions.” Ask questions about preparation and ingredients. Be prepared that your server may not know or understand your questions. Ask for the chef or manager to put your mind at ease.

FDA Rule Changes for Covid

Also, know that food manufacturers have been given some leeway in substituting ingredients without changing their labels. But what they aren’t allowed to do is change a non-allergen ingredient to one containing an allergen ingredient without disclosing it on the label. In other words, a manufacturer cannot change from tamari (gluten-free soy sauce) to soy sauce (normally contains wheat) without disclosure.

What does this all mean?

Eat whole foods. Just as an FYI, I only buy apples with a gluten-free label. (Joking!)

If you don’t, stick to manufacturers you trust and have a good track record of producing gluten-free foods. There are some manufacturers who dedicate their entire business to producing allergen-free food items. They produce foods label gluten-free and often times even pay for the product to be certified gluten-free. Those with the commitment to producing allergen-free items should be rewarded with our patronage.

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