Tricia Thompson, MS, RD is a nutrition consultant, author and speaker specializing in celiac disease and the gluten-free diet. She is the author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide and has a MS degree in nutrition from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA degree in English Literature from Middlebury College in Vermont.

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Living Gluten-Free

by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, The Gluten-Free Dietitian

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I frequently am asked about the gluten-free status of ingredients, including natural flavor, smoke flavoring, extracts containing alcohol, and caramel.

Natural Flavor
According to the Food and Drug Administration the terms natural flavor, natural flavoring” or flavoring on a food label, means "the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional."

In other words, natural flavor, natural flavoring, and flavoring may be derived from gluten-containing grains. BUT unless you see the words wheat, barley, rye, or malt on the label of food product containing natural flavor, the natural flavor probably does not contain protein from these sources.

Why? Under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act if an ingredient in an FDA-regulated food product contains protein from wheat, the word "wheat" must be included on the food label either in the ingredients list or Contains statement.

Even though natural flavoring is one of those ingredients (along with coloring and spice) that may be listed collectively, wheat protein will not be hidden. Barley is used in flavorings, such as malt flavoring and some smoke flavoring (see below) but these ingredients generally are declared in the ingredients list.

Rye also could be used in a flavoring but probably will be listed as rye flavoring (which is generally made from rye flour) in the ingredients list or used in a food product you wouldn’t eat anyway, such as a bread product. The United States Department of Agriculture (regulates meat products, poultry products, and egg products) does not allow protein containing ingredients to be hidden under the collective ingredient name of natural flavor. Rather, protein containing ingredients must be included in the ingredient list by their common or usual name.

Smoke Flavoring
This flavoring is derived from burning various woods, including hickory and mesquite. Barley malt flour may be used as a carrier for the captured “smoke.” Some manufacturers list the sub-ingredients of the smoke flavoring used in their products; others do not. I recently came across a salsa product that included smoke flavoring. The ingredient list read, "natural smoke flavor" (contains organic malted barley flour). Typically, I don’t consider salsa a likely place to find gluten but this is a good example of why it really is important to always read the ingredients list of any processed food!

Alcohol-Based Extracts
There is no reason to avoid flavoring extracts, such as vanilla extract because they contain alcohol. The alcohol in these products is distilled and pure distilled alcohol is gluten free regardless of the starting material. Remember, during the process of distillation the liquid from fermented grain mash is boiled and the resulting vapor is captured and cooled. This causes the vapor to become liquid again. Because protein doesn’t vaporize there are no proteins in the cooled liquid.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, caramel is a color additive made from heating any of the following carbohydrates: dextrose, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, starch hydrolysates and fractions thereof, and sucrose.

In other words, caramel color may be derived from barley or wheat. However, I have never come across any manufacturer information indicating that caramel was derived from malt syrup. In the U.S. caramel is typically made from corn. In Europe it may be made from wheat. BUT caramel color, regardless of what it is made from probably is an ingredient you don’t have to worry about.

Why? According to DD Williamson, the largest manufacturer of caramel color in the U.S., cornstarch hydrolysate is the most likely source of caramel when the ingredient is made in the U.S. In their plants in Europe, DD Williamson uses wheat as their source of caramel.

However, if a food product regulated by the FDA includes caramel containing protein from wheat, wheat must be listed on the food label either in the ingredients list or Contains statement. Nonetheless, even if a food manufacturer in the US uses wheat-derived caramel imported from Europe, the caramel is unlikely to contain much in the way of intact protein. This is a highly processed ingredient.

Follow me on Twitter where I will be posting weekly links to my Living Gluten-Free blog!


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@ 3:08pm ET on July 1, 2009
Thanks Tricia for another great article!


@ 10:29pm ET on July 6, 2009
I found this article somewhat misleading and therefore dangerous to those of us with Celiac disease. In the second paragraph in the "natural flavoring" section, you say that if the label does not say "wheat, barley, rye or malt then it probably does not contain gluten." The labeling law only requires companies to tell us if their product contains wheat. They DO NOT have to mention if their product contains barley, malt, rye or oats. Please do not advise your clients that they will "probably" be safe if the label does not contain the words "barely, malt, rye" or oats. People with Celiac disease absolutely cannot count on a product being safe when it contains natural or artificial flavors, unless we have called the company.

@ 6:39am ET on July 7, 2009

Thanks for your message. The paragraph you are referring to says, "In other words, natural flavor, natural flavoring, and flavoring may be derived from gluten-containing grains. BUT unless you see the words wheat, barley, rye, or malt on the label of food product containing natural flavor, the natural flavor probably does not contain protein from these sources."

Please read all 5 paragraphs for a more complete discussion of natural flavor.

I have a question for you--I would love to know what specific products (product name, brand, manufacturer) you have come across where the only "questionable" ingredient has been "flavoring," "natural flavoring," or "flavor" (not malt flavoring or smoke flavoring) and you contacted the manufacturer and they told you that the flavoring in their product contained protein from barley (including malt) or rye.

Thank you!


@ 11:00am ET on July 11, 2009
In April, I attended the Thrive Allergen & Gluten Free Expo in Chicago. Cynthia Kupper [RD and Director of Gluten Intolerance Group] was speaking at this event. During her talk she said that herself and Shelley Case [an RD from Canada] have determined that natural flavors are a "non-issue" when it comes to gluten at this time. I wanted to speak to Ms. Kupper about this after her talk, but as always at these events, time was short and there was not an opportunity.

Tricia, maybe you could interview Ms. Kupper and have her expound upon this comment?



@ 7:10pm ET on July 11, 2009
Hi Al,

I would be happy to ask Cynthia to expound upon her comment. Cynthia and I, along with Anne Lee, Melinda Dennis, Mary Kay Sharrett, and Dee Sandquist are expert workgroup members of the American Dietetic Association's Evidence Analysis Library topic on Celiac Disease. We are all pretty much on the same page when it comes to natural flavors.

If the only potentially concerning ingredient in a food product is "natural flavor", "natural flavoring", or "flavoring," persons with celiac disease probably don't need to worry about this ingredient containing gluten protein. Malt flavoring and rye flavoring generally will be listed as such on the food label. I say "probably" because I have no way of knowing if there is a manufacturer out there who is including malt flavoring or rye flavoring under the collective term "flavoring" or "natural flavoring." This does not seem likely however.

Personally, I do not worry at all about this ingredient.

Does this help?


@ 9:10pm ET on July 13, 2009
Hi Tricia,

Over the past several years, I have been less concerned about gluten in "natural flavors" for several reasons..

1 - FALCPA. Yes I know that it doesn't cover barley, rye & oats, but it clears the water considerably as to what exactly can be called a natural flavor - based on all the info I've read from various sources [see below].

2 - Calling manufacturers. I don't think I've ever come across one that has stated natural flavors contain gluten. I have run across mfgs that will not disclose what's in their natural flavors because they think I'm going to mix up a batch in my bathtub - AKA - "that stuff is a top military secret". Good grief...

3 - Keeping up with information presented by trusted and knowledgeable people/organizations (Tricia, GIG/Cynthia Kupper, Gluten Free Living Magazine [sorry for the plug, I am not affiliated].

There's so much bad/misinformation out on the web, that it takes a fair amount of research to weed out fact from fiction.

Tricia, et al - keep up the good work!

Thanks for contacting Cynthia. I sent and email to her right after the Thrive event, but did not get an answer.


@ 7:54pm ET on September 7, 2009
I can understand how lampurrenhage found this article a bit jumbled and misleading... The number one thing I NEVER want to see a nutrition consultant, author or speaker say is the phrase "probably".

If I have to base my day on a "probably" and not a 100% accurate answer I move along. Living many years now as a MALE with celiac disease you learn very fast that... WHEN IN DOUBT say PASS or FOLD... unless you are 100%, "probably" is not a guarantee.

@ 11:02am ET on January 9, 2013
I have a bachelor and master's degree in nutrition and learned last week that I have Celiac Disease. I've recently changed career paths and wondered if all those years studying nutrition was a waste of time. Now I know that's not the case. I feel lucky to have such and extensive background in nutrition, since getting my Celiac diagnosis.

Since my diagnosis, I've done a LOT of researching online, spoke to people with Celiac Disease and dietitians. I've noticed many contradictions in what people say to avoid because of possible contamination. I am doing my best to avoid all gluten, so eliminating processed foods is the best way to go (in my opinion). Still there are foods I would rather not give up like my favorite yogurt that has "natural flavoring" on the label and I don't feel like paying a lot a money for vanilla that is "gluten free".

I've heard the expression of being "glutenized" used a lot after visiting a restaurant. I feel it is difficult to pinpoint an exact cause for "glutenization" when there are so many ways to unknowingly be exposed to gluten.

My family still eats regular bread and I still make their sandwiches. I have to get out of the habit of licking the knive after I prepare something with gluten. When I pick up my son's toast, I make sure not to get crumbs on my clothes that could later fall in my own food. It would be too easy for me to blame my yogurt for a symptoms flare up without going over my day and trying to find other ways I could have come in contact with gluten.

Even in a gluten friendly restaurant, there is no 100% garantee that someone didn't handle regular bread with their hands before handling mine. I am not going to stop living because of that fear. I know that whatever I eat now, it is far better than what I've been eating for the past 39 years before my diagnosis (I used to binge on carbs a lot).

This being said, I still have a lot to learn. Only time will tell if I'm doing things right.

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