Grocery store shelves are filled with more gluten-free options than ever before, making it easier for the millions suffering from celiac disease and gluten sensitivities to enjoy a wider variety of food than they could in the past. If you’re giving up gluten—a protein composite found in many foods containing wheat, barley and rye—you may know that doing so can mean fewer uncomfortable symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and fatigue. Still, combing the grocery aisles and reading every label in search of “safe” foods can be overwhelming.
Before you head to the store, it’s important to remember that processed foods—whether they contain gluten or not—should still make up only a small portion of your total diet. And contrary to popular belief, just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s good for you. “There is a lot of gluten-free junk on the market now,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “You have to evaluate it the same way you would any product—based on what’s in the ingredient list.”
One cause for concern: Most gluten-free alternatives are made from refined rice flour, not whole grains, Powell says. Gluten-free processed foods also usually contain vegetable gums and thickeners as stabilizers. While these ingredients don’t pose a health hazard, they can cause uncomfortable gas and bloating that may leave you wondering why you’re not getting relief from your symptoms even though you’ve changed your diet.
So think of shopping for gluten-free foods as not only finding options that are “safe” to eat, but also as an opportunity to cut out many processed foods from your diet. One way to do that is by making whole vegetables and unprocessed whole grains the starch in your meals more often. “Have spaghetti squash instead of gluten-free pasta with your marinara, or serve an ear of corn or a legume like beans, lentils or peas,” Powell says. When you do buy gluten-free pantry essentials like bread and crackers seek out products made from whole grains.
Now that you’re armed with this healthy philosophy toward gluten-free eating, here are a few shopping guidelines to help you navigate grocery store aisles and stock your pantry with safe and nutritious foods:
Deciphering Gluten-Free Labels
As of August 5, 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require that products labeled “gluten-free” contain no ingredients from gluten or gluten derivatives; these foods can still contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, a safe amount for most people with celiac disease. Many food manufacturers are already complying with these rules.
That said, you should be wary of labels that say “low gluten,” “no gluten,” “no gluten ingredients,” “naturally gluten-free” and “celiac friendly,” as these terms aren’t regulated. Consider putting the product back on the shelf if there’s another option with a label you can trust.
Making Educated Selections
You know that wheat breads are a definite “no” when it comes to a gluten-free diet, but the list of foods you should steer clear of if you’re avoiding gluten is much more extensive. The following foods usually contain gluten: bread, pasta, noodles, pastries and baked goods, crackers, cereal and granola, breakfast foods (like pancakes), breading and coating mixes, croutons, sauces and gravies, beer and malt beverages. Two other common foods, French fries and potato chips, can also be hidden sources of gluten. When you’re stocking your pantry, here are the key areas of concern:
Grains and Flours
What’s Safe: rice, cassava, corn, soy, potato flour, tapioca, bean flours, sorghum, quinoa, millet, buckwheat groats (kasha), arrowroot, amaranth, teff, flax, chia, yucca, gluten-free oats (see our note below), nut flours. (Again, look for whole-grain versions when buying processed grain products.)
What to Avoid: wheat, rye, barley, triticale, wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, faro, graham, einkorn wheat, malted barley flour, brewer’s yeast.
A note about oats: “If you have celiac disease, we suggest restricting oat products for several months, as even those made in a dedicated gluten-free facility are exposed to agricultural drift from other crops, which can result in enough gluten to trigger symptoms,” Powell says. “You can try introducing certified gluten-free oats after several months, depending on the recommendation of your nutritionist or health care provider, and see if they are tolerated.”
What’s Safe: wheat-free tamari, ketchup, relish, yellow mustard and vinegar (apple cider, balsamic, distilled white/grape/wine, rice, spirit)
What to Avoid: malt vinegar, soy sauce, sauces and gravies made from hydrolyzed wheat protein, teriyaki sauce
Nuts and Seeds
What’s Safe: unprocessed nuts and seeds
What to Avoid: seasoned nuts and seeds
What’s Safe: gluten-free beer, ale and lager; liquor and wine
What to Avoid: beer, ale, lager and malt beverages
Keep in mind that this is not a complete list, and that not all products clearly indicate on their label whether or not the food has gluten.
To learn even more about what you can safely put on your plate, visit our article Your Guide to Gluten-Free Eating, which lists ingredients that are sneaky sources of gluten (like “flavoring” and “seasoning”), and Celiac.org.
Even with these shopping guidelines your trips to the supermarket might take longer when you first go gluten-free, so be patient with yourself. Plan on spending a little extra time reading the labels and educating yourself about the best options for you. Major health food stores typically offer a printed list of their gluten-free products, which could make shopping easier for you.
It’s also important to be aware of cross-contamination with gluten-containing foods, both at the store and at home. At the supermarket, avoid bulk bins with shared scoops. If you live alone, throw out or give away anything that contains gluten or could have been contaminated with gluten, such as peanut butter or mayonnaise that got spread on wheat bread. If you live with others, consider putting brightly colored stickers on all gluten-free foods. Porous tools can harbor gluten and possibly contaminate your gluten-free food, so discard wooden cooking utensils and cutting boards. Clean your dishes and utensils thoroughly to remove all traces of gluten and try to have two sets of sifters and colanders, for flour and pasta, as well as two toasters.
“It will take a little time to create a gluten-free pantry and kitchen, but once you’ve found a new list of staples, you’ll find the extra effort really pays off as your body heals and gluten-related symptoms start to disappear,” Powell says. “Consider it an investment in your health and well-being.”