Is Buckwheat Gluten-Free? And Other Grain Questions Answered
Going gluten-free can be a bit overwhelming at first. If you've been eating a certain way all your life, it can be quite a process to learn what foods are now unsafe for you and to change your eating habits.
The good news is that the FDA rules on gluten-free labeling on packaged foods are pretty clear, but like most things, there are exceptions. For example, foods that are naturally gluten-free may or may not have a gluten-free label on them (e.g., fruits and veggies), so it helps to know what foods are already naturally gluten-free.
Also if you're eating out, the whole question of examining packages goes out the window and you must rely on your own knowledge and the knowledge of the waitstaff and the kitchen.
Some things are clear: Don't eat wheat, bread, or pasta. But how about buckwheat? Couscous? Farro?
Below are some foods that may be a bit confusing regarding their gluten content.
Caveat: For those with an extreme sensitivity or celiac disease, the list below mainly talks about the grains themselves. It doesn't cover whether any specific brands or products may be exposed to cross-contamination.
I know, the word "wheat" is right in the name! But contrary to popular belief, buckwheat as a grain in itself does not contain gluten.
Botanically, buckwheat isn't even a grain, it's a seed, or what some people call a "pseudograin," meaning it can be used in cooking in a similar way to a grain.
You might see noodles, pancakes, or bread made from buckwheat. However, given that buckwheat by itself has a bit of a bitter flavor, many products tend to mix buckwheat with other grains. For example, Japanese buckwheat soba noodles, which have been around since long before the gluten-free craze, usually blend in regular wheat.
Lesson of the story? Always read the label.
As a grain in themselves, oats are gluten-free. However, oats are often grown and harvested alongside barley and wheat, which presents a high risk of cross-contamination. Most people with gluten sensitivity can tolerate oats, but if you've got celiac or are highly sensitive, look for the gluten-free label on the package when you buy oats.
If you've been to Jamba Juice anytime in the last 10 years, you've probably seen them blending up what looks like green grass into a little shot of green juice. Wheatgrass juice is known to have a ton of nutritional benefits, including boosted energy, detoxification, and lots of vitamins.
Wheatgrass grows from wheat berries, but gluten is found only in the grain (aka seed) part of the plant and not in the sprouted grass, so purely grown wheatgrass does not contain gluten. There is the potential for cross-contamination with the wheat kernel if the farmer isn't careful about harvesting before the seed has formed, so if you've got celiac or are highly sensitive, I would advise avoiding wheatgrass.
Couscous looks like fat rice and is often used in a similar way. But actually, couscous isn't even a grain in itself. It's just semolina wheat rolled into tiny little balls. Basically, it's little pasta balls. NOT gluten-free.
Similar to couscous, orzo is another form of pasta that looks a bit like rice. Also made from semolina wheat, it's not gluten-free.
Farro is an ancient grain popular in Italy. It's used in similar ways as rice, couscous, and orzo, often in salads and side dishes. Farro is comprised of three wheat species, so, needless to say, it is not gluten-free.
4. Wheat berries
Now, this is a food that has "wheat" in the name and DOES contain gluten. In fact, wheat berries are essentially the entire wheat kernel and are what whole wheat flour is made from. They are often cooked and used in salads and side dishes in the same way rice is used.
Spelt is another ancient grain that's a species of wheat also known as dinkel wheat or hulled wheat. Bread made from spelt flour is often sold in health food stores as an alternative to regular bread, but make no mistake, this grain is not gluten-free.
Also known as Khorasan wheat or Pharoah wheat due to the fact that the grains were discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs, kamut is another species of wheat, so it's not gluten-free.
However, some people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity find that they can tolerate wheat varieties that are known as ancient grains or heirloom wheat (e.g., farro, spelt, kamut).
7. Soy sauce
This isn't a grain, but it's a food that people often don't think about when thinking about wheat or gluten. After all, it's just processed soybeans, right? Wrong.
Almost all soy sauce sold in the United States contains wheat, which is used in the fermentation process. If you eat out at Asian restaurants, be careful of any food that comes in a brownish sauce – chances are that it contains soy sauce, or another sauce that is made with soy sauce like ponzu, oyster sauce, or fish sauce.
If you're shopping for soy sauce in the grocery store, many brands now sell gluten-free soy sauce or tamari, so look for the gluten-free label on the bottle before you buy.
So, there you have it, the most question-raising foods when it comes to switching to a gluten-free diet. It may seem like a lot to remember at first, but don't worry, it gets easier.
The good news is that there are lots of gluten-free foods out there now, whether they're gluten-free versions of traditionally gluten-filled foods like bread and pasta, or naturally gluten-free grains like quinoa, teff, and millet.
What other gluten-free foods do you love? What other foods confuse you as to whether they're gluten-free? Let us know in the comments on Facebook!
Jennifer Wang is the founder and CEO of The Tasteful Pantry, a healthy lifestyle company and blog that provides advice, product reviews, and resources for healthy and mindful living, with a special emphasis on "free form" living. She holds a B.S. in finance from the University of Pennsylvania. Jennifer has also been a spinning instructor for over 10 years and has been doing Pilates for over five years.
In her free time, she enjoys long runs on the beach and teaching meditation in Los Angeles.