Contaminated! Hidden Exposure to Gluten

Food manufacturers can place gluten-free labels on food that contains 20 ppm or less of gluten.

In 2010, researchers published a study that measured the amount of gluten in gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours. (1) Because foods like oats and millet are naturally gluten-free, they often do not carry a “gluten-free” label. But of the 22 products tested, seven products—or 32%—contained above 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten.

Because of contamination, it is nearly impossible to be 100% gluten-free while still consuming grain substitutes. Oats are the worst offenders, making it difficult to find gluten-free oats unless labeled.

Even oats that are labeled gluten-free may still contain trace amounts of gluten.

What the Gluten-Free Label Really Means

The reality is that even with a gluten-free label, many products still contain small amounts of gluten. This is especially true when it comes to gluten-free baked goods and starchy substitutes for your favorite gluten-filled foods.

Packaged foods labeled as “gluten-free” can be misleading. Trace amounts of gluten are now allowed under the gluten-free label, based on new manufacturing regulations passed by the FDA.

These trace amounts of gluten are expressed as parts per million, or ppm. Parts per million describes the percentage of one substance as part of another substance. In August 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration passed a regulation that allows food manufacturers to place gluten-free labels on food that contains 20 ppm or less of gluten. When it comes to the gluten-free label, 0.002% (or less) of the food is gluten.

While this doesn’t sound like much, eating small amounts of gluten every day adds up—and increases your risk for developing leaky gut and intestinal damage. In 2007, Dr. Alessio Fasano at the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research found that people who consume 50 milligrams of gluten each day have renewed intestinal damage. (2) Those who consume 0-10 milligrams of gluten each day do not.

To put these numbers in perspective, if you cut up a slice of bread into 70 small pieces, one of these pieces will contain roughly 50 milligrams of gluten—the amount of gluten that can shred the intestinal wall.

However, reactions to trace amounts of gluten will vary from one person to the next.

This means that your response to trace amounts of hidden gluten is unique. You may have no symptoms of gluten exposure, or you may have extreme symptoms of gluten exposure.

When Gluten-Free Isn’t Working for You

Between 2004 and 2011, the market for gluten-free foods grew 28% each year. (3) According to some sources, this number will only increase with each passing year. (4)

A gluten-free diet is no longer only for people with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten. Many physicians now recommend a gluten-free diet to those with an autoimmune disease, such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes. (5) Even depression and Candida overgrowth can be helped with a gluten-free diet.

This year at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, researchers published a paper highlighting the importance of trace amounts of gluten. (6) Working with patients that have a form of celiac disease that does not respond to a gluten-free diet, researchers placed these patients on a Gluten Contamination Elimination Diet (GCED)—which includes whole and unprocessed foods. They remained on this diet for up to six months.

82% of the group responded to the Gluten Contamination Elimination Diet, suggesting that gluten contamination may be a bigger problem than most people realize.

If a gluten-free diet is not working for you, you may need to eliminate foods that are contaminated with trace amounts of gluten, like gluten-free baked goods and gluten-free flours.

Hidden Sources of Gluten

A Gluten Contamination Elimination Diet relies mostly on unprocessed foods. Besides contamination, heavily processed foods often contain hidden sources of gluten. One example is brewer’s yeast, which is oftentimes a byproduct of the beer industry and therefore contaminated with malt and grain. Another is the ingredient “malt,” which means barley malt.

Malt is derived from barley, a gluten-filled grain. Other derivatives to look out for include:

  • Hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • Wheat germ
  • Wheat bran
  • Barley malt extract or flavoring
  • Malt vinegar
  • Wheat-based starch hydrolysates, like glucose syrups and maltodextrin

You might expect to find gluten in most breads, cereals, and pastas, but it may surprise you to learn that you can also find gluten in seasonings, sauces, marinades, soy sauce, pre-made soups, and salad dressings.

You can avoid exposure to trace amounts of gluten by preparing most (if not all) of your meals at home.

Need some help? The Body Ecology Meal Plans do the work for you, minimizing your exposure to hidden sources of gluten. Each weekly meal plan includes three Body Ecology dinner menus, plus shopping lists and cooking tips that save you time in the kitchen.

Remember that if you stick with fresh vegetables, ocean vegetables, sour fruits, and small portions of unprocessed protein, you have the best chance of curtailing your exposure to gluten. On the Body Ecology Diet, your biggest risk of gluten will be in processed grain substitutes. So, when enjoying Body Ecology grain-like seeds, we recommend that you stick with whole, unprocessed millet, buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa.

What To Remember Most About This Article:

So-called “gluten-free” foods can be misleading. Gluten contamination is a reality when consuming grain substitutes, like oats. As of 2013, the FDA now allows food manufacturers to use gluten-free labels on foods with 20 ppm or less of gluten. Even with a gluten-free label, hidden gluten is a reality.

On even the strictest gluten-free diet, your health may be compromised with gluten contamination in packaged gluten-free foods. If your gluten-free diet still hasn’t improved your health, it may be time for a Gluten Contamination Elimination Diet made up of whole, unprocessed foods to be safe.

For gluten sensitivity or a more serious autoimmune disease—like celiac disease, psoriasis, or rheumatoid arthritis—avoiding hidden gluten is critical. To cut out traces of gluten, it’s best to begin preparing healthy meals at home.

You can find inspiration in The Body Ecology Meal Plans to rid your kitchen of gluten for good. Delicious, Body Ecology-friendly meals focus on fresh vegetables, ocean vegetables, sour fruits, and unprocessed proteins, along with naturally gluten-free grain-like seeds.


  1. Thompson, T., Lee, A. R., & Grace, T. (2010). Gluten contamination of grains, seeds, and flours in the United States: a pilot study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(6), 937-940.
  2. Catassi, C., Fabiani, E., Iacono, G., D’Agate, C., Francavilla, R., Biagi, F., & Fasano, A. (2007). A prospective, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to establish a safe gluten threshold for patients with celiac disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 85(1), 160-166.
  3. Sapone, A., Bai, J., Ciacci, C., Dolinsek, J., Green, P., Hadjivassiliou, M., & Fasano, A. (2012). Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification. BMC medicine, 10(1), 13.
  4. Marcason, W. (2011). Is There Evidence to Support the Claim that a Gluten-Free Diet Should Be Used for Weight Loss?. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(11), 1786.
  5. El-Chammas, K., & Danner, E. (2011). Gluten-free diet in nonceliac disease. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 26(3), 294-299.
  6. Hollon, J. R., Cureton, P. A., Martin, M. L., Puppa, E. L. L., & Fasano, A. (2013). Trace gluten contamination may play a role in mucosal and clinical recovery in a subgroup of diet-adherent non-responsive celiac disease patients. BMC gastroenterology, 13(1), 1-9.
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