Avoiding Gluten

The first step in avoiding gluten is to identify which foods contain gluten.

It is also important that the way any food is made is free from contamination from gluten. Avoiding the risk of cross contamination can sound a bit daunting when you first make gluten free food but it needn’t be. You just need to take some sensible precautions.

Identifying which foods contain gluten

Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye. So anywhere you see these ingredients, the food will contain gluten.

Wheat flour is usually the basis for breads, pasta, cakes, breakfast cereals, pastry, biscuits and many sauces.

The more difficult areas to identify gluten are the other food products that are made from wheat, barley and rye. For example:

1) Stabilising agents are made from gluten and added to products such as ice-cream. The basic recipe for ice-cream does not contain gluten. However these stabilising agents are added to some commercial ice-creams. You cannot tell by looking or tasting which ice-creams contain these stabilising agents and which don’t. The only way of identifying whether something contains a stabilising agent is to read the label.

2) Malt which is found in a wide variety of products such as beer, whisky, malted shakes, Horlicks, Ovaltine, Maltesers, malt vinegar and malt loaf is made from malting grains, usually barley. Any time you see malt listed on ingredients labels, it is safest to assume it will contain gluten unless is specifically says gluten free.

3) Cous cous. This is increasingly used in salads etc. This is made from wheat so cannot be used by someone avoiding gluten or wheat. Rice or quinoa is a useful substitute for cous cous.

4) Soy sauce. Usually contains gluten, you need to find one that specifically says it is gluten free.

5) Chocolates. Some chocolates contain gluten, even those that are straightforward dark or milk chocolate. So always check the label.

Food labelling

The starting point for identifying gluten is the ingredients labels you will find on all commercially sold food. The quantity of information on food labels has improved enormously over the past few years making it easier to identify gluten containing products, if you know what you are looking for. Otherwise they can sometimes look like an overwhelming list from a chemistry lesson.

On 1st January 2012 a new law on gluten free food labelling came into effect in the UK which should help significantly in identifying gluten free products. The law applies to both pre-packed and loose foods, so manufacturers, restaurants, cafes etc will all be equally affected.

There are now three labels to look for:

1. “Gluten-free”
This term is now covered by law for the first time and applies only to food which has 20 parts per million (ppm) or less of gluten.

2. “Very low gluten”
This term is also covered by law and applies to foods which have between 21 and 100 ppm.

3. “No gluten-containing ingredients”
This term is not covered by law so is optional for food producers. It tells you that the food was made with ingredients that don’t contain gluten and that the food producer has good cross contamination controls in place.

People’s level of sensitivity can vary so some individuals may be able to tolerate slightly higher levels than others. Only the first level of less than 20ppm, labelled “gluten free” is regarded as safe for all coeliacs.
You can only learn by experimentation how sensitive you are.

If you are cooking for someone who has to avoid gluten ask them about their level of sensitivity and whether you can include products from groups 2 and 3 above. If in doubt, stick to gluten free only. 

Avoiding cross contamination

It is important to avoid cross contaminating gluten free foods with gluten. This need not be daunting, some simple steps will help keep things safe.

Try to avoid cooking gluten containing foods and gluten free at the same time. This is particularly the case if you are using normal wheat flour or bread as it is easy for the flour and crumbs to remain on work surfaces, cooking utensils etc.

Follow normal cleaning rules – wipe down surfaces, clean pots, pans, cooking utensils with soap and water.

There are some specific things to watch out for:

- Cutting boards. You may want to get separate cutting boards if you will be cooking gluten free food regularly. This is particularly if you use wooden boards which have tiny pores where it is easy for crumbs and flour to remain.

- If you use toasters for normal bread, it will be impossible to remove all the crumbs. So either toast your gluten free bread under the grill or use toaster bags.

- Baking trays can often have baked in food stuffs from previous use, despite cleaning. This is the case particularly with older trays. If you cannot get it completely clean, cover the tray with foil or greaseproof paper.

- Watch when you use food mixers. Double check that the bowl and mixer/whisk/hook are completely clean. Also check the underside of your mixer above the bowl is clean and the splash guard (if you have one). It is easy for bits of flour to get trapped around these areas and fall into the next food you prepare.

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