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At the Grocery Store: How to Go Shopping for Gluten-Free Food

Guidelines for Gluten-Free Shopping

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Updated April 01, 2009

Some of the simplest guidelines for gluten-free food shopping I’ve ever heard come from Jax Peters Lowell in her book Against the Grain. Basically, she says:

  • The fresher the food, the more likely it’s gluten-free.

  • The more processed the food, the riskier it is for celiacs.

  • The greater the level of convenience, the more likely that the product contains gluten.

  • It’s better to buy the ingredients and assemble the dish yourself than to buy something that's been boxed, sealed, or precooked.

Be prepared for your first few trips to the grocery store as a gluten-free shopper to be long and painful. You’ll need to read labels on everything, and you’ll have some unpleasant surprises as you discover that gluten lurks almost everywhere. Bring along a printed list of what’s safe and what’s not. If you don't know exactly what an ingredient is and what it's derived from, don't take a chance on it. Try to take comfort from the fact that avoiding processed foods can mean healthier eating, and not just for celiac patients. I firmly believe my family eats much healthier meals because I buy so few processed foods (I’m the shopper, the cook, and the only celiac).

Browsing the Perimeter of the Store

If you haven’t already noticed, the freshest foods tend to line the perimeter of the grocery store. Along the walls you’ll find the fresh produce section, the meat, poultry and fish departments, fresh juices, and the egg and dairy sections –- all relatively safe areas to shop. (If you're lactose intolerant, take heart from the fact that lactose intolerance often improves or disappears entirely after celiacs have been gluten-free for awhile.) Even in these "safer" sections, you’ll need to read the ingredients labels on all packaged products.

Cruising the Inner Aisles

The inner aisles tend to be filled with gluten-containing products, but there are still plenty of items to collect for yourself, including corn tortillas, potato chips, plain frozen vegetables, Asian rice noodles, rice crackers, plain rice, wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, tomato sauce, dried beans and legumes, spices and herbs, corn starch, tapioca, honey, jams and preserves, peanut butter, vinegars, cooking oils…and more. On these items too you must carefully read the labels. Remember that “organic” and “wheat free” do not mean gluten-free.

Talking to the Store Manager

More and more grocery stores are stocking gluten-free items, including frozen waffles, cold cereals, flours, pastas, and even cake and cookie mixes. Stores are generally eager to stock items their customers want. If your local store does not carry gluten-free items, ask the manager to order them for you. In the meantime, consider ordering your gluten-free items from a mail order supplier.

Back at Home...

One final word, about gluten-free bread. One of the first things I did as a newly diagnosed celiac was rush to a health food store to buy gluten-free bread. I found a frozen loaf of bread made with rice flour, brought it home, let it defrost on the counter, made myself a sandwich... and it tasted AWFUL! Here's what I've learned since then. Store-bought gluten-free bread usually tastes terrible at room temperature. You need to warm it up. Keep it frozen, and then toast it or microwave it, a slice at a time.

Sources:

Lowell JP. Against the Grain. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995.

Horvath K, Cureton P, and The Children’s Digestive Health and Nutrition Foundation Celiac Campaign Scientific Advisory Board. Gluten-Free Diet Guide for Families.North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN), Flourtown, PA.

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