What Does Gluten-Free Mean?

Young woman is eating gluten-free meal

When you first hear the term "gluten-free", you may be wondering, "what does gluten-free mean?" But before we answer that question, let's first understand why some people avoid this type of protein. 

People with celiac disease avoid consuming gluten, as it can have some severe adverse effects on their digestive system even if they just eat a small amount of it. Meanwhile, others would avoid it because they believe it’s just bad for their overall health.

This is the reason why the popularity of gluten-free foods has increased in recent years. But with so many foods being advertised as "-free" on the market, it's hard to determine what the term actually means for a product.

So, what does gluten-free really mean?

Gluten, defined

In a nutshell, gluten is a family of proteins found in some grains, including barley, wheat, and rye. So, it’s common in foods, such as pasta, bread, and cereal.

Gluten gives dough its elasticity. It’s also what keeps the shapes and textures of bread and other grain products. You can think of it as a glue that holds these foods’ ingredients together. 

However, while it’s present in many food items, gluten provides no essential nutrients to the body. It may even trigger a negative immune response in people who are intolerant to it. 

What is gluten intolerance?

Celiac disease is one of the most serious forms of gluten intolerance. People suffering from this condition experience adverse reactions from eating anything with gluten.

This disease is a  type of autoimmune disorder that affects approximately 1% of the world population. It can severely damage the lining of the small intestine, as well as cause infertility, osteoporosis, seizures, and nerve damage. 

Aside from celiac disease, there is also the non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This is a milder form of gluten intolerance, but can still cause health problems. 

These two types of gluten intolerance are not exactly the same, but both can cause symptoms that may not even have anything to do with the digestive system. 

Some of the most common signs include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea and smelly feces
  • Constipation
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Skin problems
  • Joint pain 
  • Anemia
  • Depression
  • Sudden weight loss

So, "should I avoid gluten?” you ask?

Fortunately, there’s an increasing number of gluten-free food options available on the market today. But, what does it mean for a food to be gluten-free? And, how can you tell if a food item does not contain gluten?

Gluten-free food labels

Gluten Free

It's easy to claim that something is “gluten-free”. But what does gluten-free mean, as defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? 

The FDA allows food manufacturers to label their products as “gluten-free” if they contain no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. The reason why it is 20 ppm and not zero ppm is that modern technology cannot accurately measure the presence of gluten below 20 ppm. 

Evidence also suggests that less than 20 ppm gluten does not cause any adverse effects on the health of people with celiac disease, making it an acceptable amount. Food products with less than 20ppm gluten may have the following labels:

  • Gluten-free
  • Without gluten
  • Free of gluten
  • No gluten

Foods that are gluten-free by nature do not need to carry any of these labels. However, some manufacturers may still choose to have them on their products.

Going gluten-free with a plant-based diet

What does gluten-free mean, and is it possible to go gluten-free when on a plant-based diet?

The answer is “yes”. You can certainly eat gluten-free, vegan meals!

However, it’s important to remember that there are certain whole grains, such as rye, barley, triticale, and all types of wheat, which contain gluten. Just make sure to avoid them at all costs, especially if you have celiac disease. 

Some plant-based foods that are naturally gluten-free include:

  • Whole grains (except wheat, rye, triticale, and barley)
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables (double-check canned, frozen, dried, and pre-chopped vegetables and fruits before buying)
  • Pure fruit juices
  • Coffee (without creamer)
  • Tea

Many foods today contain gluten ingredients, so make it a habit to always check the ingredient label carefully when shopping.

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