So I was in the store and I noticed a container of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese labeled "gluten-free." I thought all cheese was gluten-free. Do some cheese contain gluten or is this a marketing ploy?
Maybe a cheesy question
Dear Maybe a cheesy question,
Your question isn’t cheesy at all: in fact, it's a great topic to whey in on (pun definitely intended). While most cheeses are gluten-free, there may be some exceptions depending on how the cheese is produced and which additives, if any, are used. The best way to be sure that you’re buying cheeses that suit your dietary needs is to carefully check the packaging and take note of ingredients that should be avoided (more on this in a bit).
Commonly found in breads, pasta, baked goods, cereals, and beer, gluten is a protein that occurs in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. There are a number of aversions a person may have to gluten and the effects can be as varied as the diagnosis itself. Those who experience gluten intolerance or a gluten allergy may experience mild gas to vomiting and shortness of breath. However, those with celiac disease develop an autoimmune response to these proteins that attacks the small intestine and can put someone at increased risk of various other health conditions. In fact, some people with celiac disease are so sensitive to gluten that if you sliced regular bread with a knife and then used that same knife to cut a piece of gluten-free bread—cross-contaminating the knife—it could trigger a negative reaction.
Due to the prevalence of the protein and the severe immune responses that people can have, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a standard defining the terms “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” and “gluten-free.” This standard stated that food products must have a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million (ppm) in order to qualify for this label. If you have celiacs fret not, this level was chosen because it’s been shown to be tolerable even among those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. When it comes to the gluten content in cheese specifically, most types are appropriate for people on gluten-free diets. The following cheeses, for example, are considered to be safe choices:
- Cheddar Cheese
- Cream cheese
- Feta cheese
- Goat cheese
- Mozzarella cheese
- Parmesan cheese
- Ricotta cheese
- Swiss cheese
Blue cheeses like gorgonzola, while usually gluten-free, may sometimes contain traces of gluten if the mold cultures were grown on wheat or rye bread. That said, it may be a good idea to check the label to make sure those grains aren’t included on the ingredients list. Similarly, while cottage cheese is usually gluten-free, some brands use wheat starch or modified food starch made from wheat to thicken the product or help extend its shelf life.
It can be important to mention that the form your cheese comes in may also impact its gluten content. Spray cheese, string cheese, and cheese powder are almost always gluten-free. Shredded cheese, however, can sometimes have starch or cellulose added in to keep the bits of cheese from sticking together. While potato starch (gluten-free) is the most common additive, some cellulose can come from wheat. If this is the case, the package of shredded cheese should indicate somewhere on the label that it includes gluten-containing ingredients. In North America, if “modified food starch” is on the label and there’s no mention of wheat in the ingredients list, the cheese should be safe for those avoiding gluten. As for products like cheese spreads, they can sometimes contain gluten to improve consistency or flavoring. Dairy-free cheeses may also be an issue as some types are made with flour. Checking for gluten-free labels and reviewing the ingredients list on cheese products will allow you to make sure that what you’re buying is safe for your health needs.
Gluten can also be found in many products beyond what one might normally assume contains gluten such as soy sauce, food additives like modified food starches and malt flavorings, and even vitamins that use the protein as a binding agent. Additionally, foods that are naturally gluten-free such as bottled water, fruit, and eggs can also be labeled “gluten-free” as long as any gluten they may have come in contact with is less than 20 ppm. If you’re avoiding gluten, regardless of motive, these nuances may be important to be aware of when purchasing food.
Is it possible, as you suggest, that the move to label the gorgonzola cheese as “gluten-free” is a marketing ploy? Maybe. On the other hand, for those with a medical aversion to gluten, knowing that a cheese hasn’t been cross-contaminated by gluten or processed using gluten-derived additives may mean it makes the cut. Not to be cheesy, but you can never brie too safe when it comes to knowing what’s in the food you’re buying.
Keep up the gouda work!
Originally published Jun 27, 2014
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