The Gluten-Free Sandwich: Are Cheese and Deli-Meats Safe?
Swiss, Gouda, Havarti, Cheddar, Muenster. No matter how you slice it, cheese is a favorite addition to any sandwich. Pile on some ham, salami, bologna, sliced turkey or chicken breast, spread your favorite condiments, and you’ve got the makings of a delicious sandwich.
But is that sandwich gluten-free and safe for you to eat if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity?
You probably already use gluten-free sandwich bread or a bread alternative (lettuce wrap, anyone?). That’s a good start, but before you add anything between the slices, read on!
Let’s Talk About Cheese
Most cheese is gluten-free because the basic ingredients are milk, bacterial cultures, and rennet, the enzymes that separate milk solids from the water in milk to create curds. All of these components of cheese are naturally gluten-free.
Not all cheeses are created equal. Some go through processes where gluten could be present. For example, blue cheeses, such as Roquefort and Gorgonzola, are made with cultures from the mold Penicillium. This cheese-making process creates the characteristic blue mold streaks or spots on blue cheeses.
If the Penicillium cultures are grown on wheat or barley, they could contain gluten. The actual levels of gluten present in the final cheese product are probably low, but the safest bet is to find blue cheese that is certified or labeled gluten-free. In September 2020, GIG had testing performed on penicillium cultures at a research lab in Australia, and the findings showed the cultures contained gluten levels greater than 20 ppm.
Watch out for cheese with flavorings or additional ingredients. Any time ingredients are added to a food product, the risk of gluten being present increases. Some hard cheeses are soaked in beer, for example, depositing gluten on them and making them unsafe for a gluten-free diet. Processed cheese, such as American cheese, and cheeses that are low-salt, low-fat, or fat-free may also contain gluten.
Always check the ingredients list on cheeses if they are not either labeled or certified gluten-free. As always, a third-party certification can provide an extra level of comfort when seeking out safe foods to eat.
When making a sandwich, you usually have control over the cheeses you use. Stay clear of cheese trays and gifts of cheese where you cannot examine the packaging.
Let’s Talk About Deli Meats
Most lunch meats are gluten-free, but it is always possible that they may contain added ingredients that could contain gluten, such as wheat-derived dextrin or modified food starch to thicken. While these two additives are not always derived from gluten-containing grains, some are and could lead to a gluten reaction. You can contact the manufacturer about the source of dextrin or modified food starch if it isn’t clearly labeled.
A lunchmeat manufacturer could add gluten-containing flavoring, like wheat-containing soy sauce. As with cheeses – and any packaged product you’re putting on your sandwich or consuming in another way – always check labels and confirm a product’s gluten-free status.
Meat products are regulated by the USDA, not the FDA like other packaged food products. Meat processing and packaging companies are not required to comply with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) allergen labeling law. (See our article “3 Tips for Gluten-Free Label Reading” for more details.)
Most USDA-regulated products do comply with FALCPA, but without a third-party certification, there is no guarantee the label you read is fully accurate and transparent. Products certified gluten-free by a third-party are the safest products to consume.
What About Condiments?
What’s a gluten-free sandwich without some mayonnaise, mustard or another tasty spread? But are condiments gluten-free? The short answer is not necessarily, so check the ingredients on the labels of anything you add to your sandwich.
While mustard seed is inherently gluten-free, some manufacturers add flour as a thickener or bulking agent to their mustards. Mayonnaise is typically made of eggs and oil, and most popular brands do not add gluten-containing flavorings. Since condiments are regulated by the FDA, even if the product is not labeled gluten-free, the product label must say whether or not wheat–based ingredients have been added, since wheat is one of the top 8 allergens which must be clearly indicated in ingredient lists
With a little bit of caution and a lot of creativity, you can enjoy a gluten-free sandwich with cheese, meats, and spreads. Don’t forget the fresh lettuce and tomato for some naturally gluten-free finishing touches. Bon Appetit!
Disclaimer: The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Consult your healthcare team when considering this information.
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