Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. In people who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten can cause:
- an immune system reaction
- inflammation in the digestive tract
- brain fog
- skin rashes
Dairy products, such as 100 percent natural cheese, usually don’t contain gluten. However, gluten is sometimes added during the manufacturing of some cheeses and cheese products.
Other cheeses may be modified to remove fat or salt. These may have gluten-based ingredients added back in to improve their texture or taste.
Cheese with gluten
Plain, full-fat cheeses with no flavorings or additional ingredients are usually gluten-free.
Processed cheese and cheeses labeled as low-salt, low-fat, or fat-free may have gluten. If cheese contains any type of add-in, such as wheat starch or modified food starch, it may also contain gluten.
The ingredients in different brands of American cheese, cottage cheese, queso, and ricotta cheese vary. Some of these contain gluten, and others do not. If vinegar is listed as an ingredient, double-check the type of vinegar used, since malt vinegar contains gluten.
Full-fat cream cheese is usually gluten free, as long as it isn’t packaged with crackers, pretzels, cheese straws, or other wheat products. Double-check the ingredient list on cream cheese that’s labeled low-fat or fat-free.
It’s important to look at the labels of any processed cheese, as well as cheese products. Some include gluten, and others do not.
Reading the label on cheese and cheese products can help to uncover gluten, but it’s important to know what terms to look for. Gluten is often added as a thickener or stabilizer to cheese products in order to prolong the shelf life or to keep the ingredients from separating.
Gluten-free cheeses may sometimes become contaminated by products containing gluten. This can happen:
- at the farm
- at the factory
- during transport
- in restaurants
- in the grocery store if cheese is handled on the same surfaces as products containing gluten
- at the deli counter if the same machines used to slice gluten-containing foods slice cheese
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s limit of gluten in a gluten-free product is less than 20 parts per million (ppm). This is the smallest amount of gluten that scientific analytical tools can detect in food. Cheese contamination from these types of exposures typically stay below this limit.
People with gluten sensitivity can usually tolerate foods contaminated at the store level. Those with celiac disease need to be more vigilant.
Always check food labels to learn about the factory your food was made in if you experience symptoms from minimal exposure.
You should also keep your food away from the kitchenware other people use if you share your home with someone who eats gluten.
The bottom line
Natural cheese of all types is typically gluten-free. People who either have non-celiac gluten sensitivity or celiac disease need to be vigilant about reading labels on cheese and cheese products to ensure that they don’t inadvertently ingest gluten.
Even cheese marked as gluten-free can accidentally become contaminated by gluten-containing foods. This type of contamination usually results in very small amounts of gluten, and it’s usually only an issue for those with celiac disease.
Purchasing cheese and cheese products that are labeled as produced in gluten-free factories can help. When in doubt, discuss your symptoms and how best to manage them with your doctor or dietitian.