Welcome to the start of my new blog series on Gluten Free product labeling....first stop, cheese.
My family LOVES cheese! If you are a cheese lover and new to following a gluten free diet, you maybe wondering whether you can still enjoy your favorite cheeses. Good news! For the most part, cheese in it's natural form is gluten free. There are some misconceptions about cheese as it relates to gluten content, particularly with packaged / shredded cheese, that can be confusing. Whether you are new to the gluten free diet or a seasoned veteran, you likely spend a considerable time in the market reading ingredients and labels. Below, I'll walk you through a few of the most common, everyday packaged cheese products, outline their status as it pertains to gluten, and how to identify it on packaging. While this certainly isn't an exhaustive list of all available cheeses, it will arm you with enough knowledge to shop safely and confidently for a cheese that suits your needs.
Labeling for Gluten 101
When shopping for any packaged food item (cheese included), it is important to be vigilant in reading labels and ingredients lists. To identify whether a packaged food is Gluten Free, The Celiac Disease Foundation recommends taking the following steps:
Check for a "Gluten Free" label. The FDA requires packaged foods to contain under 20 PPM of gluten to bear the "Gluten Free" label. Regardless, always check the ingredients list to be sure.
Check the Allergen Listing for "wheat" which is one of the 8 common allergens. This can be a quick way to rule something OUT, but keep in mind that the lack of an allergen statement does NOT mean the product is Gluten Free (e.g., rye and barley are not part of the 8 to allergens)
Look at the ingredients list. If it contains any of the following ingredients, the product is NOT gluten free: Wheat*, Rye, Barley, Oats (unless they are certified gluten-free or best option"Purity Protocol"), Malt, and Brewer’s yeast. Wheat ingredients can get a bit tricky as there are many derivatives that don't have "wheat" in the name (e.g., modified food starch).
*"Label reading for wheat has become much easier since the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act” (FALCPA) was passed in 2004 (1). This regulation requires that the top 8 allergens be clearly identified, wheat being one of them. This means that derivatives of wheat such as “modified food starch” must clearly indicate that “wheat” is the source. “Wheat” can either appear in parentheses in the ingredient list or in a separate “contains” statement. - Gluten Intolerance Organization
(1) Be aware that FALCPA labeling is regulated by the FDA. While foods regulated by the USDA (meat, egg and poultry products) are not required to comply, 80-90% do so voluntarily.
Check out this listing from The Celiac Disease Foundation so you know what wheat derivatives and other gluten containing foods to look out for.
As I mentioned above, cheese in it's natural form is gluten free for the most part. The exceptions here would be Roquefort or Blue Cheese, some of which can be made with a bacterial culture that comes from glutenous bread grains, typically Rye. Don't worry, being gluten free doesn't mean an end to your relationship with moldy cheese - you just need to choose carefully. Other considerations are cheeses that are made with added gluten- containing ingredients used for flavoring. I found this handy list put together by Allison at "Sure Foods Living"* to guide you safely to gluten free blue cheese:
Gluten-free blue cheeses:
BelGioso gorgonzola – verified via website that all their cheeses are gluten-free
Marin French Cheese Factory blue cheese – verified via phone
Maytag blue cheese – verified via phone (it used to contain gluten, but now does not)
Montforte blue cheese and gorgonzola – verified via phone
Pt. Reyes blue cheese – verified via phone and website
Rosenborg blue cheese – verified via web
Paladin MonSalvat blue cheese – verified via email
* Read more about GF Blue Cheese
Blue Cheese Dressing
If you're looking for a gluten blue cheese dressing, give Bolthouse Farms Chunky Blue Cheese Yogurt Dressing a try. Not only is it gluten free, it has 85% less fat and 78% less calories than traditional blue cheese dressings. This is a family favorite !
The skinny on shredded: When a recipe calls for shredded cheese, my personal preference is to shred my own cheese from the block. Let's be real though, the mid-week chaos of a busy family often makes this task too cumbersome. So, packaged shreds it is! But, how do you know for sure whether or not a packaged shredded cheese contains gluten? First and foremost, check the product labeling AND the ingredients list. The tricky ingredient in most cases is the "anti-caking agent" (prevents icky clumping), which is typically "powdered cellulose". This ingredient can be made from wheat, but most often is not. If it does contain wheat, the manufacturer should call it out as an allergen on the ingredients listing.*
*"Anti-clumping agents used by cheese manufacturers include powdered cellulose, calcium carbonate, and potato starch. Of these, only powdered cellulose can be made from a gluten grain (wheat, usually), but in that case, the manufacturer should call out the wheat on the product's label." - VeryWellFit.com
Here's a quick rundown of the "gluten free status" on a few popular brands of packaged shredded cheese that I use at home.
Organic Valley - Organic Valley"proud to be one of the few always-organic brands", is one of my favorites. Not only is it made from the the best organic ingredients that taste great, they source from a co-op of family farmers from across the US. OV cheeses do not contain wheat or gluten in their ingredients. Per their website , "Organic Valley and Organic Prairie provides full disclosure of additives in the ingredients list on all of our packaging. This is required because of the strict nature of organic certification - another reason why organic is the safest choice. In addition, we verify that our packaging and packaging processes do not contain gluten from rye, barley or wheats." GF Status: Thumbs up!
365 Brand (Whole Foods) While 365 brand does not have gluten free labeling, they do have an allergen statement that calls out milk. Since wheat is not listed in this statement, it can be considered safe to consume. GF Status: All good!
Cabot Vermont Sharp Cheddar specifically calls out "Gluten Free" on it's packaging. GF Status: Safe bet here!
Sargento does not label their shredded cheeses as Gluten Free, but per their website FAQ section, they declare all of their natural cheeses to be gluten free (below the FDA's requirement of 20PPM*). Read more here: https://www.sargento.com/faq. GF Status: Go for it!
Kraft also does not specifically call out "gluten free" on their packaging, but per their website states that they "consider and label for all possible sources of the 8 major allergens recognized by the FDA" as well as "substances of interest" including all sources of gluten over 10 PPM (among other substances such a sulfites). Read more here: http://kraftfoods.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/3269/kw/gluten. GF Status: Green light!
Cheese Sliced and Packaged in-store
While the cheese you are buying may not contain gluten in it's ingredients, cross contamination can come into play. Think of the deli department and what else might have been sliced on the cheese slicer. A more likely source could be the deli counter person's gloves. Did he or she just handle pasta salad? If you are Celiac or very Gluten Sensitive, take a moment to talk to you deli counter associate and let them know your concerns. They can clean the slicer, change gloves, etc., to help minimize cross contamination in your order.
All in all, cheese is a pretty safe bet, with a few exceptions. As always, read labels and ingredients and ALWAYS trust your gut. If you experience any adverse effects, stop using the product (keeping in mind that many gluten sensitive people are also sensitive to dairy). With so many cheese products available in the market, you are sure to be able to find a gluten free option that you and your family love. If you have questions, don't hesitate to call the company directly, reach out via social media, or check their website for FAQ's about gluten.
Sources & Additional Reading
Check out this helpful list of of commonly consumed cheeses from Beyond Celiac, a Celiac Awareness, Advocacy & Action Group
Celiac Disease Foundation https://celiac.org/gluten-free-living/what-is-gluten/sources-of-gluten/
The Gluten Intolerance Group: https://gluten.org/resources/the-gluten-free-label/
Please share your feedback and questions in the comments. I love hearing from you!