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Gluten-free labelling for coeliac disease

Patient information A-Z

Labelling of gluten free foods

The law covers the labelling of foods with the terms ‘gluten-free’ and ‘very low gluten’.

‘Gluten-free’ implies no gluten, but in practice a zero level of gluten does not exist because even naturally gluten-free cereals such as rice can contain traces of gluten.

The internationally agreed maximum level of gluten considered safe to eat for people with coeliac disease is 20 parts per million (opens in a new tab) (ppm) or less of gluten (opens in a new tab) and the label gluten-free can only be used on foods which meet this level.

Research shows that this tiny amount is not toxic to people with coeliac disease and they can eat unlimited amounts of products with a gluten level of 20ppm or less. This applies to:

  • Processed foods made from naturally gluten-free ingredients such as some baked beans, soups, sausages, crisps
  • Some specialist substitute products such as breads, flour, crackers (some of these products may contain Codex wheat starch but at a safe level within the Codex standard– see later)
  • Uncontaminated oat products

The term ‘very low gluten’ applies to specialist substitute products such as flour, bread and crackers which use Codex wheat starch (see later) at a gluten level between 21-100ppm. As a result, they may not be suitable for some individuals who have a greater sensitivity to gluten. At present, there are no foods labelled as ‘very low gluten’ in the UK.

Codex wheat starch

Codex wheat starch is a specially manufactured wheat starch originally introduced to improve the quality and texture of specialist gluten-free products. It is washed so that it contains a low level of gluten. By law, Codex wheat starch must always appear in the ingredients lists of pre-packaged foods no matter how much or how little is used.

Products which contain Codex wheat starch with a gluten level within the Codex standard (<20 ppm) can be labelled as ‘gluten free’ (see earlier). Products which contain Codex wheat starch with a higher level of gluten (between 21 – 100ppm) can be labelled ‘very low gluten’.

Products which contain Codex wheat starch are marked with a triangle symbol '▲' in the Coeliac UK Food and Drink directory.

‘Ordinary wheat starch’ and ‘modified wheat starch’ are not suitable on a gluten-free diet and must be avoided by all. However, if a label states ‘modified starch’, this will be from a gluten-free grain and therefore safe to eat.

The crossed grain symbol

Some packaged foods display the Coeliac UK’s crossed grain symbol, to indicate that the food is ‘gluten-free’. The symbol acts as a quick reference point to reassure the product is suitable for those with coeliac disease. You may notice different letters under the symbol depending on where a product is made, for example if a product was made in the UK and contains gluten free oats you will see the letters OAT-GB-001-001 underneath.

symbol of a piece of wheat / grain crossed out
Crossed Grain symbol

Suitable for coeliacs

Some gluten-free foods may display the term ‘suitable for coeliacs’ and can only be used by manufacturers if the product contains less than 20ppm of gluten. These products can therefore be eaten in unlimited amounts in those with coeliac disease.

May contain gluten

A ‘may contain’ statement may be used when the manufacturer has decided there is a risk the product could be contaminated with gluten.

Such labelling may say:

  • ‘may contain traces of gluten’
  • ‘made on a line handling wheat’
  • ‘made in a factory also handling wheat’
  • ‘not suitable for people with coeliac disease / a wheat allergy due to manufacturing methods’

Some manufacturers use this label even when the risk is very small. Contact manufacturers directly if you would like further information on the suitability of these products.

No gluten containing ingredients

In July 2016, food labelling legislation changed affecting the ‘no gluten-containing ingredients’ (NGCI) term in use by some food providers in accordance with the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

This term 'NGCI' is not covered by law but is used as a way for manufacturers and caterers to explain how their products are made. It means:

  • the food is made with ingredients that do not contain gluten
  • controls are in place to minimise the risk of cross contamination with gluten containing ingredients
  • the food has not been tested to measure gluten levels

By February 2018, food businesses were no longer able to put the NGCI label against individual products or dishes, both on packaged foods and on menu choices in restaurants. However, NGCI can be used when listing a group of products without gluten-containing ingredients, for example as a title on a menu or a list of products on sale in a supermarket.

NGCI can only be used as a factual statement when they cannot guarantee the foods are gluten-free. This allows caterers and retailers to indicate the availability of these products to consumers.

Summary of labelling

Labelling terms and meanings

  • Gluten-free: Suitable for all.
  • Very low gluten: Contains Codex wheat starch and may be unsuitable if you are very sensitive. There aren’t any foods currently labelled ‘very low gluten’ in the UK.
  • Crossed grain symbol: Either gluten-free or very low gluten.
  • Suitable for coeliacs: Suitable for all.
  • May contain: Risk the product could be contaminated with gluten. Contact the manufacturer directly for further information.
  • No gluten-containing ingredients: Produced in a safe environment without any ingredients containing gluten but not tested to guarantee the levels of gluten.

Barley malt extract

Barley malt extract is a flavouring often added in small amounts to breakfast cereals, cereal bars, chocolate and confectionary. Foods containing barley malt extract in smaller amounts (where the gluten level is within the Codex standard <20ppm) are safe to eat on a gluten-free diet.

However, by law, pre-packaged foods using barley malt extract must be labelled as containing barley no matter how much or how little is used, therefore you will not be able to tell from the ingredients list if those foods are safe to eat unless they are labelled gluten-free. Suitable foods that are not labelled gluten-free containing barley malt extract in small amounts (for example own brand breakfast cereals) are listed in the Coeliac UK food and drink directory if the manufacturer has declared this information.

It is best to avoid foods that contain barley malt extract if they are not labelled as gluten-free or listed in the Coeliac UK Food and Drink Directory, however you may wish to contact the manufacturer directly or the Coeliac UK helpline for more information.

Who do I contact for further information?

Contact dietitian: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Telephone: 01223 216 655

Coeliac UK Helpline: 0333 332 2033
Coeliac UK website (opens in a new tab)

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