Going on a gluten free diet can seem overwhelming. This guide contains the basic rules you need to know to get started eating gluten free right now, today—whatever your reason for eating gluten free…
Table of Contents
- Why eat gluten free?
- What is gluten?
- What is celiac disease?
- What is gluten sensitivity?
- What foods are naturally gluten free?
- What foods are not gluten free?
- What food might not be gluten free?
- What laws govern gluten free food labeling in the United States?
- How to begin a gluten free diet
- Beyond the basics
- Other gluten free diet resources
Why eat gluten free?
There are so many reasons to begin eating a gluten free diet. Whatever your reason is, it’s the right one. Whether you have a “gold standard” diagnosis of celiac disease, believe you have gluten sensitivity or another form of gluten intolerance, are allergic to wheat, or just plain feel better when you don’t eat gluten, you are free to choose to follow a gluten free diet.
Never feel obligated to ask for permission or forgiveness. I have been cooking and baking gluten free since 2004, and developing and publishing gluten free recipes since 2009.
I began with terrible baking mixes that I had to special order from Canada, graduated to baking with bean flour blends from Bette Hagman, and finally learned to bake with a rice flour-based gluten free flour blend. Baking with an all purpose gluten free flour blend was a true revelation.
No more mile-long lists of ingredients in recipes. Since then, I have developed other blends for some more specialized purposes, like a blend for more delicate recipes like crepes and pancakes, and one for yeast breads with real chew and proper texture—and hundreds of gluten free recipes.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few things along the way about the basics of a gluten free diet (what exactly is gluten? What foods are naturally gluten free?), celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and even which gluten free snacks are best to stash in your pocket or purse for “emergencies.”
My children consider the first pang of hunger to be an emergency, so, you know. I’ve broken this guide down into a few basic categories, so feel free to skip to the portion most important to you, and bookmark it to return to for reference.**
**Disclaimers: All of the content on this website, including this page, is for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, which I am not in any way qualified to give. All product facts and information, particularly information about processing and labeling, is specific to the United States.
Product links contain affiliate codes. If you click one of the links and make a purchase, I will make a very small commission on the sale, at no extra cost to you.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Varieties of wheat are Einkorn, durum, kamut, semolina, spelt and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye).
Einkorn is the most ancient form of wheat, and the only variety that has never been hybridized. For people who are gluten intolerant or allergic to wheat, it’s a distinction without a difference.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that is triggered in affected individuals by the ingestion of gluten, creating an immune reaction in that person’s body that causes the flattening of the villi in the lining of the small intestine, which is responsible for food absorption.
There are quite literally hundreds of possible signs and symptoms of celiac disease (see CureCeliacDisease.org, the Celiac Disease Center at University of Chicago Medicine). Many of them are intestinal, such as abdominal pain and bloating, vomiting, diarrhea and/or constipation and are often but not always accompanied by weight loss, including failure to thrive/short stature in children.
They can also be as wide-ranging and difficult to quantify as “brain fog” and joint pain, as well as anemia that does not respond to iron-replacement therapy. Sometimes there are even no outward symptoms of celiac disease, which can make it particularly difficult to diagnose.
The “gold standard” diagnosis of celiac disease is an endoscopic biopsy of the small intestine (See CureCeliacDisease.org, the Celiac Disease Center at University of Chicago Medicine). The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten free diet.
What is gluten sensitivity?
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is characterized by a digestive reaction to gluten which may be immune-related but for which there is currently no diagnostic test. The Celiac Disease Center at University of Chicago Medicine is actively researching this issue.
What foods are naturally gluten free?
- All grains that are not the gluten-containing grains mentioned above (wheat, barley and rye) are naturally gluten free. These include:
- wild rice
- oats. A note about oats: They are not a gluten-containing grain. However, they are typically grown on shared fields with wheat and other gluten-containing grains, and stored and processed in shared facilities with gluten-containing grains. Oats that are grown on dedicated fields and stored in dedicated gluten-free silos will be labeled “Certified Gluten Free” in the United States. Some celiacs are also sensitive to oats, but they are not a gluten-containing grain when in their pure form. Please see Are Oats Gluten Free? for a more thorough discussion.
- All flours made from anything other than the gluten-containing grains are naturally gluten free. These include:
- almond flour
- almond meal
- amaranth flour
- arrowroot flour
- banana flour (it’s a thing!)
- all bean flours
- bran flours such as oat, corn and rice brans
- rice flours
- cassava flour (ground whole yuca or cassava root)
- chestnut flour
- coconut flour
- corn flour, cornmeal, cornstarch, masa harina, polenta (and all other corn derivatives)
- potato flour
- potato starch
- quinoa flour
- sorghum flour
- soy flour
- sunflower seed flour
- Pure spices, fresh or dried, are gluten free provided they do not have any gluten-containing fillers.
- Food starches, unless they are made from wheat, are gluten free.
- Guar and xanthan gums are naturally gluten free.
- Pure baking ingredients such as:
- pure maple syrup
- cane sugars
- invert sugars such as Lyle’s golden syrup
- brown rice syrup
- pure vanilla extract
- all vinegars except malt vinegar
- vegetable oils
- olive oils
- coconut oil
- pure dairy, such as milk, butter, cheese, plain yogurt, sour cream (flavored yogurts are likely gluten free, but their additives may contain gluten; more highly processed milks may contain additives)
- pure nut butters
- dried beans (and cooked beans without gluten-containing additives)
- plain canned vegetables and fruits (no sauces)
- frozen and raw fruits and vegetables
- meat, chicken, pork, and seafood
- Rum, tequila, potato vodka, wine and most hard apple ciders are gluten free.
- Other hard liquors that are derived from gluten-containing grains such as whiskey and bourbon are arguably not gluten free, but the distillation process removes nearly all of the gluten, down to a minuscule level. To be completely safe, stay with alcohol that is gluten free from the start.
- Flavored wines may not be gluten free. The “hard root beers” I have seen recently are not gluten free, as they are made with conventional beer (see “not gluten free” list just below for a discussion of gluten free beers).
What foods are not gluten free?
- Wheat, barley and rye in all of their forms (including ancient forms of wheat, such as spelt) are not gluten free under any circumstances.
- Foods derived from wheat, barley and rye are not gluten free, including barley malt in all its forms (malt vinegar, malt syrup, malt flavoring, etc.).
- Foods that contain wheat as an ingredient, such as conventional soy sauces, which contain wheat in the United States. Gluten free tamari is a good alternative.
- Anything breaded, unless the breading is specifically gluten free.
- All conventional flours in all forms, including all purpose flour, cake flour, pastry flour, bread flour, semolina flour and 00 flour.
- Anything made with conventional flours, such a breads (including bread crumbs and croutons), cake, pies, cookies, crackers, sauces and gravies, conventional pastas, Communion wafers, wheat-based snacks such as Wheat Thins and most crackers.
- Any breakfast cereals that are not specifically labeled certified gluten free, such as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (which are made with barley malt extract), Kellogg’s Rice Krispies (made with malt flavoring), Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (malt flavoring, again), and Post Raisin Bran (the first ingredient is wheat). General Mills has made all Chex Cereals, other than Wheat Chex, gluten free in a dedicated, gluten free facility in the United States. General Mills also recently reformulated Cheerios and is currently labeling packages “gluten free,” but their process for removing gluten contamination from oats is controversial. For what it’s worth, I will not give my gluten free son Cheerios, but he does eat Chex cereals. Rice Krispies was making a gluten free formulation of its popular cereal for a time, but the line has been discontinued. No worries. I thought their version was rather bland, and much prefer the other brands of gf crisp brown rice cereal.
- Conventional beer, which is made from gluten-containing grains such as wheat and barley, is not gluten free. There are many gluten free beers on the market, though, many made in dedicated facilities and from gluten-free grains such as sorghum, rice, millet or even buckwheat.
- Some gluten free beers, like Estrella and Daura Damm, are made using a gluten containing grain like barley, then distilled in a special brewing process to remove the traces of gluten that would otherwise remain after traditional beer brewing. For a list of 10 gluten free beers, VeryWellFit.com has you covered.
What food might not be gluten free?
- Modified food starches are gluten free unless they are derived from wheat. If the modified starch is made from wheat, the label must either call the ingredient out as “modified wheat starch,” or the label must say that the product contains wheat, one of the top 8 allergens (see below).
- Naturally gluten free or prepared gluten free foods that are prepared in a kitchen in which cross-contamination with gluten-containing foods, including crumbs, is a legitimate concern. If a well-meaning host tells you that she has made you a gluten free muffin from a gluten free mix, but she has made them in her well-worn muffin tin, I’d politely decline.
- Anything naturally gluten free that is fried in the same oil that was used to fry something gluten-containing. If you go into a burger restaurant and want to eat their french fries, be sure to ask what seasoning and additives they use, and whether they are fried in a fryer that is “dedicated” to the frying of only gluten-free foods.
- Over the counter and prescription medications. Every once in a while, I will find a medication that specifically states that it is gluten free. Otherwise, I get on the phone to the manufacturer’s customer service and ask. Gluten Free Drugs is a well-known website in the gluten free community for maintaining a well-researched list of gluten free drugs. I consult the list, and then I still do my own homework.
- Caramel color, citric acid, dextrose, glue in stamps and envelopes, hydrolyzed vegetable and plant proteins, maltodextrin, mono- and di-glycerides and distilled vinegar have a minor chance of not being gluten free, but Gluten Free Living Magazine includes them among the “Top 10 Ingredients You Really Don’t Need To Worry About.”
- Seasoned packaged snacks, such as tortillas, corn chips, popcorn, etc. Check labels to be sure.
- Multi-ingredient soups, soup-bases, stocks and bouillons. Check labels to be sure.
- Foods labeled “wheat free,” but not labeled “gluten free.” Wheat is not the only gluten-containing grain.
- Vitamins and supplements, even when the ingredients listed on the label don’t seem to contain gluten. Do your homework.
- Condiments and sauces may or may not be gluten free, depending upon the ingredients used. Most mustards are gluten free, as are most hot sauces (personal favorite: Frank’s).
- Sprinkles, jimmies and nonpareils. The ingredients in these
- Candies may not be gluten free. Certain candies are (thankfully) perfectly gluten free, such as Dots, Tootsie Rolls, Milk Duds, Dum Dums lollipops (in fact all Spangler products are free of all top 8 allergens and they’re really serious about that, which is great), most M&Ms (remember—all this information is accurate in the United States only) other than obvious ones like the kind that have pretzels inside and the crispy M&Ms and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Kisses. For a reliable, regularly updated list of gluten free candies, VeryWellFit.com again to the rescue.
What laws govern gluten free food labeling in the United States?
- Top 8 Allergen Labeling: The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act applies to most packaged food products sold in the United States. It requires that covered packaged food products that include an ingredient that contains a protein from any of the top eight allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, soy, wheat and Crustacean shellfish) be either named clearly in the ingredient list, or in a separate “contains” statement near the ingredient list on the package.
- Meaning of “Gluten Free”: Food bearing a claim of “gluten free” that was labeled after August 5, 2014 must be inherently gluten free, or does not contain an ingredient that is derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten to less than 20 parts per million (ppm). Since the use by manufacturers is entirely optional, many non-labeled products are gluten free. The difference now is that no foods that bear the term gluten free may have more than 20 ppm gluten. See FDA Guidance and an FDA Consumer Update on the subject.
How to begin a gluten free diet
If you're in the earliest days of a transition to a gluten free diet, you may feel overwhelmed. I promise that it will all be okay. Just follow these simple rules for preparing your kitchen and purchasing a few packaged foods. Then you can buy some simple gluten free baking ingredients and bake something simple, when you're ready. From there, the sky's the limit!
- Clean your kitchen: My kitchen at home is completely gluten free. We began a gluten free diet for my son when he was very, very young, and I found it was much easier to maintain a completely gluten free kitchen. Over a decade later, and we are still that way. We removed everything from our kitchen that was not gluten free. We donated or gave to friends any gluten-containing packaged foods, including otherwise gluten free condiments that had already been opened and were contaminated with gluten. What we bought new:
- A toaster, since our previous one was filled with crumbs
- Any porous cutting or cooking surfaces and utensils like plastic and wood cutting boards, wooden, plastic or silicone utensils, unenameled cast iron pans, baking pans and muffin tins.
- Our colander, mesh sieves and sifter, as gluten is sticky and hides in crevices.
- If you use nonstick pans, I would replace them as they never seem to get squeaky clean.
- What we kept and didn't buy new:
- Stainless steel pans and enameled cast iron were fine, as I just ran them through the dishwasher
- Porcelain, ceramic, stainless steel and glass plates, cups, dishes, bowls, flatware and paring and chef’s knives were fine.
- Purchase some gluten free packaged products so you don’t feel too deprived.Especially in these early days and weeks, only purchase packaged products that are labeled “certified gluten free” and/or are made in a dedicated gluten free facility, so that there is no risk of cross-contamination from gluten-containing products. I recommend buying:
- Schar or Canyon Bakehouse sliced gf bread
- Barilla gluten free dried pasta
- Chex breakfast cereals (other than Wheat Chex)
- Diamond Nut Thins crackers
- Lara Bars, LUNA Bars and KIND Bars are great for on-the-go snacking “emergencies.”
- Purchase some basic gluten free baking pantry items. These will help you get started baking some very simple recipes. I always recommend that your first baking recipe be a drop cookie recipe, like my drop sugar cookies. You’ll undoubtedly be successful, as drop cookies are very forgiving, and you’ll be more likely to delve further into baking. I recommend:
- Make sure anything you put in your mouth is gluten free. That means toothpaste! Most toothpastes are mouthwashes are, indeed, gluten free. But double check to be sure.
Beyond the basics
If you've made it this far, perhaps you're ready to learn more. The perfect next step is our Beginner's Guide to Baking Gluten Free, which should give you the confidence to begin baking everything you're missing, now that you're baking gluten free.
I have written 5 gluten free cookbooks, all of which have introductory chapters that walk you through how to cook and bake gluten free with success, including a full explanation of ingredients used.
This blog, Gluten Free on a Shoestring, is also a great complement to this guide to the gluten free diet and the cookbooks. I update it regularly, so sign up for my free email list to be notified when there's something new.
Other gluten free diet resources
There is a lot of other really useful information on the web on this topic. I have already linked to much of it, but here are some of my other favorite resources on a gluten free diet:
- The Basic Gluten Free Diet from Gluten Free Living.
- Gluten Free Diet Basics from The Gluten Free Dietitian.
- The Quick Start Guide from Celiac.org.
- The Gluten Free Diet from The Mayo Clinic.
- Gluten Free Resources from Gluten Dude.
- Quick Start Gluten Free Diet Guide from the Gluten Intolerance Group.
Gluten free has also been in the news more and more. Here are some articles you might find interesting (or infuriating, depending upon the article):
- Against the Grain: Should You Go Gluten Free? in The New Yorker.
- Should We All Go Gluten Free? in The New York Times Magazine.
- 6 Truths About a Gluten Free Diet from Consumer Reports.
- Unraveling the Gluten Free Trend, from EatingWell.com.