Gluten in Your Food: Cross-Contact or Cross-Contamination?
We’ve broken down the two main ways gluten might get into otherwise gluten-free foods, and they may not be the two ways you think.
Living gluten-free? Whether you’re recently diagnosed with celiac disease or are avoiding gluten for other reasons, knowing if the food you eat is free of gluten can be a challenge. If ingesting gluten leads to acute reactions or serious health issues, understanding the ways gluten could get into the foods you eat can be critical for your health. Here’s what can happen.
The Right Term is “Cross-Contact”
When foods with gluten from wheat, barley or rye come into contact with gluten-free foods, cross-contact can happen, placing gluten where it shouldn’t be present. Cross-contact can take place when food is processed using the same equipment. Cross-contact can happen in manufacturing facilities; food service establishments, including restaurants (especially at buffets); or even in your home kitchen. When gluten particles remain on a surface, or handled with the same utensils that haven’t been properly cleaned, they can be transferred onto or into gluten-free foods coming into contact with the same surfaces or utensils.
But What About Cross-Contamination?
The term “cross-contamination” is not an accurate description of gluten particles being present in gluten-free food. Cross-contamination refers to microorganisms, namely bacteria, that are transferred from one substance or object to another by accident that cause harm – like salmonella or E. coli.
The gluten-free diet was developed in the 1930s by a Dutch physician, Dr. Willem-Karel Dicke, who first published his findings about gluten sensitivity in a Dutch medical journal in 1941. Conversations about gluten and gluten-free diets became more common over the next few decades. The term “cross-contamination” was used, incorrectly, to describe gluten getting into non-gluten foods. The proper term is cross-contact because gluten is a protein, not bacteria.
The Multiple Risks of Agricultural Commingling
If you’re not in the food or agriculture industries, you may not have ever heard the term “agricultural commingling,” but this refers to the mixing of gluten in non-gluten grains prior to being turned into a finished food product at a processing facility. Gluten can get into naturally gluten-free agricultural commodities while they are being grown, harvested, transported, and stored.
While crops, including gluten-free grains are being grown and harvested, gluten can get mixed in from something as seemingly innocent as the wind or birds carrying gluten particles or seeds from other fields, close by or far away. Before foods even arrive at a processing plant, there are multiple opportunities for contact with gluten.
The Good Gluten-Free News
Being aware of the potential for cross-contact between gluten and non-gluten foods is important to be able to eat safely with confidence. The more steps foods take to get to you, the more chances for gluten to enter the mix. Sounds scary? Don’t worry.
The good news is that if you purchase packaged foods that are labeled gluten-free – or better yet, are certified gluten-free by a reputable certifier like GFCO – then you can rest assured that the foods are gluten-free. A reliable certification process includes food testing at multiple stages, processing facility audits, and training on gluten-free practices at every stage of food handling. If a company, its facilities, and a final food product pass all tests (for GFCO, that includes less than 10ppm of gluten), then you can rest assured it is safe.
After purchasing gluten-free food to prepare at home, the next step to ensuring its safety is to make sure your kitchen and cooking practices follow gluten-free protocols. Check out our article “Tips for Avoiding Gluten Cross-Contact at Home” for more information.