Surprising Foods That Unexpectedly Contain Gluten

Not that long ago, the only people who worried about gluten were people with celiac disease. But things have changed. Plenty of people, with or without a diagnosis, are reducing their gluten consumption (even though doctors have their reservations about gluten-free diets). The interest in gluten-free foods is obvious in just about every aisle of the grocery store.

But for all of the gluten-free breads and alternative flours, grocery stores stock many foods you might incorrectly assume are gluten-free. These unexpected sources of gluten can cause health problems for people with celiac disease. And they can trip you up if you’re eating a gluten-free diet to feel more energetic, more focused, or healthier. Read on for some foods containing gluten.

1. Ice cream

three cups filled with cherry ice cream, one of our foods containing gluten

Ice cream is one of our foods containing gluten. | iStock.com

Let’s start with one of the worst surprises. Many flavors of ice cream unexpectedly contain gluten, which is bad news if you have celiac disease or you’re on a gluten-free diet. VeryWell reports it’s not just cookies and cream or chocolate chip cookie dough that might contain gluten. Manufacturers produce plenty of other flavors on the same equipment as gluten-containing products. So you should read the label every time you buy a carton of ice cream.

2. Corn flakes

Tasty corn flakes in bowl with bottle of milk

Corn flakes contain malt extract, which means they have gluten. | iStock.com/Aksenovko

The Celiac Disease Foundation explains wheat isn’t the only grain that contains gluten. Wheat varieties and derivatives, such as semolina, farro, and graham, contain gluten. So do other grains, including rye, barley, and malt. And foods in their basic form that don’t contain gluten might become a source of gluten thanks to other ingredients the manufacturer adds. Corn flakes make an easy example. This cereal sounds safe because it’s made with corn. But the foundation reports corn flakes often contain malt extract or flavoring. So unfortunately they do contain gluten.

3. Rice puffs

Puffed rice and a jug of milk

Rice puffs also contain gluten. | iStock.com/lily_rochha

Another seemingly innocent breakfast cereal that actually contains gluten? Rice puffs. This cereal sounds safe. After all, rice isn’t the same thing as wheat. And rice itself doesn’t contain gluten. But the Celiac Disease Foundation reports rice puffs, just like corn flakes, often contain malt extract or flavoring. The verdict? Rice puffs don’t make a safe alternative to wheat-based breakfast cereals.

4. Granola

granola in a bowl

Unless it uses gluten-free oats, granola probably contains gluten. | iStock.com

Need a snack? Granola sounds safe. Manufacturers typically make it with oats. And oats, on their own, don’t contain gluten. The problem, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, is “cross-contact can occur in the field when oats are grown side-by-side with wheat.” When you buy oats, you need to look for oats that are specifically labeled gluten-free. But when you’re buying granola, there’s probably no way to ensure the granola uses gluten-free oats, not regular oats.

5. Couscous

couscous salad

Couscous comes from wheat flour, which means it contains gluten. | iStock.com

You might assume couscous makes a safe alternative to pasta. But couscous isn’t actually an alternative grain. Couscous is actually just small balls of semolina flour. That, you guessed it, comes from the same durum wheat that goes into pasta and other gluten-containing ingredients. The Celiac Disease Foundation categorizes couscous with other types of pasta that contain gluten.

6. Cornbread

cornbread in a skillet

Cornbread contains cornmeal, but it also contains flour. | iStock.com

You might think cornbread is safe for people with gluten sensitivities because it’s made with corn. But you just need to look at any basic recipe for cornbread to realize that cornbread doesn’t just contain cornmeal. It also contains all-purpose flour. Manufacturers offer all kinds of gluten-free flours. But all-purpose flour doesn’t number among them. Don’t let the yellow color fool you. Cornbread definitely contains gluten.

7. Soy sauce

pouring soy sauce into a white dish

Standard soy sauce often contains gluten. | iStock.com

Think there’s no way that soy sauce contains gluten? Think again. The Celiac Disease Foundation reports “traditional soy sauce” often contains gluten. The reason why? According to VeryWell, “most brands contain wheat as their first ingredient.” But one kind of soy sauce, called tamari, is traditionally made without wheat. So VeryWell advises opting for one of “a small (but growing) handful of tamari-style gluten-free soy sauce brands on the market.”

8. Cream sauces

cheese ravioli in alfredo sauce

Cream sauces, such as those used in pasta dishes, often start with a roux, which means they contain gluten. | iStock.com/Isr_Raviv

A cream sauce doesn’t seem like a likely source of gluten. But think about the way a cream sauce comes together. Most start with a roux. A roux, composed of equal amounts of flour and butter, forms the base of the sauce and helps thicken it. The problem? Most people use simple all-purpose flour to make the roux. So when it comes to a dish, such as macaroni and cheese, even if the macaroni is gluten-free, you have to make sure that the sauce is gluten-free, too.

9. Beer

beer with a meal

Unless it’s specifically labeled gluten-free, your beer probably contains gluten. | iStock.com

This probably isn’t a concern if it’s your child, and not you, who needs to eat a gluten-free diet. But beer, unless explicitly labeled gluten-free, actually contains gluten. Most distilled alcoholic beverages don’t contain gluten even if they’re made from gluten-containing grains. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, “The gluten peptide is too large to carry over in the distillation process, leaving the resulting liquid gluten-free.” Wines, hard liquor, and distilled beverages don’t contain gluten. But beers, ales, lagers, and malt beverages aren’t distilled. Therefore, they do contain gluten.

10. Energy and granola bars

Homemade granola bars with dates and nuts

Want a gluten-free energy bar? You’ll likely need to make it yourself. | iStock.com

Everybody loves energy bars and granola bars. But you have to look carefully at ingredients lists if you need yours gluten-free. Many energy and granola bars contain wheat as an ingredient. Others use oats. (Again, few manufacturers reliably use oats that are grown to be gluten-free.) You’ll need to look specifically for bars that don’t have gluten in them. Or you can opt to make your own at home from ingredients you know are safe.

11. French fries

Container of french fries lying sideways on a table with container of ketchup next to it.

Think fries don’t have gluten? Think again. They often get cross-contaminated in the fryer. | iStock.com/kiboka

One of the more surprising foods the Celiac Disease Foundation says you need to consume with caution? French fries. Everybody knows french fries aren’t a health food. But they can be dangerous to people with celiac or gluten sensitivities because fries can be cross-contaminated in the fryer. Many of the other foods restaurants fry, such as chicken or hush puppies, are coated in a batter that contains wheat flour. So fries can get cross-contaminated with gluten just by getting fried in the same oil.

12. Potato chips

Bowl filled with potato chips sitting on wooden table.

Many flavors of potato chips contain gluten. | iStock.com/Magone

Another junk food to reconsider? Potato chips. The chips, in their basic form, don’t contain gluten. But the Celiac Disease Foundation warns that “some potato chip seasonings may contain malt vinegar or wheat starch.” VeryWell reports that “potato chips ought to be naturally gluten-free.” But some brands of potato chips use gluten-containing ingredients. And others get cross-contaminated in production. Fortunately, plenty of brands offer gluten-free potato chips for safe snacking. You just have to know which ones to look for at the grocery store.

13. Processed meats

Crispy strips of bacon

Multiple kinds of processed meat contain gluten. | iStock.com/5second

VeryWell reports that many processed meats, such as hot dogs and cold cuts, are gluten-free. However, “not all brands are safe.” Many hot dogs, for instance, don’t contain gluten ingredients. But some can get cross-contaminated somewhere along the production line. Some pre-formed hamburger patties contain grains — and therefore gluten. Bacon can get cross-contaminated and sometimes uses liquid smoke flavor that contains barley malt powder. And though most sausage manufacturers don’t use gluten ingredients, few can guarantee their sausages aren’t made in the same facility or on shared equipment with gluten-containing foods.

14. Candy bars

Chocolate bar on the wooden background

Many popular chocolate bars contain gluten or get cross-contaminated by candy that does. | iStock.com/al62

A chocolate bar might not sound that dangerous. But many popular kinds of candy actually do contain gluten. (Or they are cross-contaminated by other products that contain gluten.) VeryWell reports that fortunately more candy manufacturers are making their candies gluten-free. You just need to read labels carefully every time. Sometimes, the standard size of a specific candy bar will be labeled gluten-free, but the snack size will not, or vice versa. And seasonal items are often contaminated because they’re made in shared facilities or on shared equipment.

15. Soup

Soup made of baked cherry tomatoes

Many soups, especially cream-based ones, contain flour. | iStock.com/kawizen

Think you’re out of the woods when your soup of choice doesn’t contain wheat noodles? Think again. Many soups contain barley, a grain that will add gluten to your bowl. And the Celiac Disease Foundation warns you need to “pay special attention to cream-based soups, which have flour as a thickener.” VeryWell reports many soups use gluten ingredients as thickeners. And cream-based soups “usually feature far more wheat flour than cream.”

16. Salad dressings

Quinoa, avocado and apple salad

Many salad dressings contain gluten. | iStock.com/StephanieFrey

Salad sounds safe (at least if you leave off the croutons). Salad greens don’t contain gluten, after all. But you need to think carefully about what you put on top of your salad. Salad dressings routinely contain all kinds of gluten sources. Some incorporate malt vinegar. Others use soy sauce. And still others use flour as a thickener. Always read the ingredients before you select a salad dressing. And if you’re eating at home, consider making your own.

17. Meat substitutes

sliced meat substitute

Many vegetarian meat substitutes are made from seitan, which is wheat gluten. | iStock.com

If you’re trying to eat a vegetarian diet and a gluten-free diet at the same time, you’re going to need to do your research. The Celiac Disease Foundation points out that many popular meat substitutes — including veggie burgers, vegetarian sausage, imitation bacon, and imitation seafood — are made with seitan. Seitan is actually wheat gluten, exactly what you’re trying to avoid. A safer alternative is tofu. Tofu is gluten-free. Just be cautious of soy sauce marinades and cross-contamination when the tofu is fried.

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