When you saw the title of this post, you might have thought, “Well that sure covers a lot of ground.” Yes, it does! Everyone on the Autoimmune Protocol knows to avoid dietary gluten. Hopefully you also know to check supplements and medications for hidden gluten and other ingredients that might cause trouble. For an AIP newbie, changing your diet and supplements, and getting the kitchen dialed in may feel like a mountain of work (totally worth it!), but it’s wise to cover some other bases to ensure you don’t end up ingesting gluten and other AIP no-nos from unsuspected sources such as household products, body care products, and some packaged foods.
In this post we’ll go over the what and where of sleuthing out those hidden ingredients. The baseline is: know your ingredients, be a devoted label-reader, and don’t trust anything you aren’t familiar with or that isn’t labeled with clarity.
Gluten hidden in body care products
Many body care and household products contain ingredients sourced from gluten, corn or soy, yet their labels don’t always say so. You might think, “Why would something I put on the outside of my body or use in the household be a risk?” Simply stated, you might get it in your mouth. And, the jury is still out, but some sources posit that you can absorb it via your skin as well.
Ingestion scenarios: you put lotion on, then eat a snack; you are washing your hair and some suds from that lovely volume-increasing oat-based shampoo run into your mouth; you apply your mascara and lick your finger to wipe a smear off; you apply sunscreen while sweating on the beach, wipe your cheek, and eat your lunch; you toss your dog a few of her favorite treats and then touch a food item of your own.
You’ve just ingested gluten, corn, or soy, and may pay the symptomatic price for days or even weeks.
In my opinion, instead of having to be obsessive about not transferring to your mouth what you put on your skin or use in your house, it’s simpler to just weed out the products that might put you at risk. It might mean an overhaul of the entire household’s body- and house-care products, but it’s worth it in the long run. Take a close look at what’s in your shampoo or laundry detergent…make no assumptions! Read all labels, and if there is anything you’re not sure about, research it before using it.
Common body care items that may contain gluten, soy or corn
- Lip stick and lip balm
- Sunscreen — commonly contains Vitamin E (see below)
- Vitamin E — commonly based on wheat germ oil; there are gluten-free options
- Shampoo — commonly contains wheat or oats
- Soaps — even trusy old Dr. Bronners uses corn-based ingredients in some of their products
- Cough syrup
- Cosmetics of all kinds — many companies don’t label completely, and it might mean a call to the company to verify ingredients. Also, remember that while most kids don’t use makeup, they may play with yours, so make sure it’s gluten-free for their sake.
Common household items reported to contain gluten
- Children’s stickers — choose those labeled gluten-free
- Price tag stickers — cut them off fruits and veggies
- Stamps and the glue on envelopes — historically gluten-based, now commonly based on corn. Use a small sponge to apply a bit of water to wet the glue. Wash your hands afterward!
- Play-doh — commonly made from wheat, you can make your own AIP-friendly version. Really now, what kid does not try to eat Play-doh?
- Pet food and treats — you may not be tasting your dog’s goodies, but is your child trying them? Many kids do!
- Laundry detergent
- Cleaning products
Gluten hidden in packaged and prepared foods
On dietary protocols such as AIP, GAPS and low-FODMAP, we try to make the bulk of our food. Ideally we have enough time, resources and energy to batch cook once or twice a week so we have ready-made food for the majority of our meals, and have a few meals stashed in the freezer to use in a pinch.
Sadly, this perfect scenario goes wrong more often than we’d like: your kid comes down sick and you can’t make it to the grocery for this week’s shopping trip; work throws you an unexpected deadline and you’re working till midnight on batch cook day; or, you have a flare that knocks you on your butt and you have barely enough energy to brush your teeth, much less rock a 3-hour batch cook session.
Ideally we have some extra meals ready to pull from the freezer, but if you’re like me, sometimes you use your stash with the intention of replacing it the next day, then two days later you’re in a pinch because something came up and the batch cook didn’t happen. And…you find yourself eating something packaged because you have to eat NOW or collapse. I know I’m not the only one!
Have you ever heard the saying that on the AIP, all you need to do is shop the outside aisles at the grocery? Bulk foods, meats, fish, offal, veggies — it’s all there. Maybe a swing into the condiment aisle for AIP-friendly oil, and you’re headed for the checkout lane. The majority of packaged foods are a danger zone on the AIP. They contain too many non-AIP ingredients and frequently have mislabeled or mysteriously-labeled ingredients that leave us in a symptomatic pit of despair. Ever wonder what “spices” might mean? How about “natural flavorings”? Chances are, they mean, “I’m sourced from wheat, soy, or corn, suckers!” Avoid.
If you have to use packaged foods in a pinch, be smart about reading labels and knowing what to avoid. My personal policy is if I don’t know what it means, haven’t heard of it, or it says something vague like “spices” or “flavors,” it goes back on the shelf. More than once I’ve dined on sardines canned in water, with some olive oil, salt and coconut aminos on top, but hey, life could be worse!
Common ingredients that may contain gluten, soy or corn
Below is a list of ingredients to keep an eye out for at the grocery store. While some of these items may be familiar to you as things to avoid, others may come as a surprise. Many common food items can be sourced from non-AIP ingredients that cause us problems. The items seen in quotation marks below are sometimes seen on labels just as they are here; one might wonder what they contain!
- Artificial color and flavorings
- Caramel color/flavoring
- Baking powder — not all brands are gluten-free, and they may not be labeled clearly. Baking powder is made of baking soda, cream of tartar and a moisture absorption agent which can be cornstarch, potato starch, or wheat starch. The Paleo Mom has information on how to make your own.
- Citric acid — can be fermented from wheat, corn, molasses or beets. Check that bottle of Vitamin C in your cabinet, too — if it doesn’t say gluten-free, it’s sourced from corn!
- Fat replacers
- Food starch
- Modified food starch
- Gelatinized and pregelatinized starch
- Glucose syrup
- “Natural juices”
- “Natural flavor”
- Vegetable protein — commonly soy, sometimes wheat
- TVP = Texturized Vegetable Protein
- HPP = Hydrolyzed Plant Protein
- HVP = Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
Other things to look out for:
Spices: some spice companies use glutenous fillers; use only pure, high-quality herbs and spices with no fillers.
Processed meats: cold cuts, hot dogs, sausages, and some specialty and reformed meats commonly contain gluten-based “glue” to hold them together.
Communion wafers: some churches will allow you to bring your own gluten-free variety.
Label changes: always have an eye out for labeling changes! If a trusty old product suddenly has a redesigned label, or now has “New” or “Improved” on it, check the ingredients to make sure nothing has changed.
Bulk food department: this one I discovered by accident one day at a local Whole Foods…the bulk department guy was doing his cleanup, and I watched as he grabbed the feather duster (commonly used to keep the tops of the bins clear of food particles), and started dusting the entire row of bins beginning with…yes…the wheat flours. All the way down the line, he dusted dutifully, contaminating every bin with gluten. I was crushed. And ticked off. We all know bulk departments have their inherent risks with cross-contamination, but I was pretty disappointed at the blatant disregard. However, I’ve worked in grocery stores and will tell you it can be a common occurrence. Depending on your food sensitivities and where you shop, it might be worth looking into how your local bulk department does its cleanup — especially if you have unexplained food reaction symptoms and you shop bulk.
Restaurant food: while the topic of eating AIP at restaurants merits its own post, I’ll mention a few key points here:
- Cross-contamination is common on kitchen surfaces in restaurants
- Sometimes veggies are par-boiled in the pasta water
- Restaurants tend to prepare all deep-fried foods in the same oil, so cross-contamination is likely
- If you choose to eat at a restaurant, interview the chef about kitchen cross-contamination. If that chef doesn’t have time for you, take care of yourself by walking out the door
The information above may seem overwhelming at first, but given some time, it becomes natural to read labels, learn ingredients, and trust your judgment. Some people print out a list of the sinister ingredients to look out for, to keep in their wallet.
You’ll develop a list of go-to foods that you can gravitate toward when you find yourself in a pinch. My in-a-pinch foods are: my favorite brand of sardines (I keep a tin stashed in my car); the roaster chicken at my local Whole Foods; and certain nuts that I’ve reintroduced successfully. You may have noticed all those options are high-protein and low-sugar; the last thing you want to do in a pinch is binge on sugars or carbs and set your blood glucose on a rollercoaster.
Finally, make the effort to create a home that is free of hazardous ingredients by dialing in your body care products, household cleaners, pet foods, and anything else that might contain non-AIP ingredients. Once you get the household free of questionable items, you’ll be able to rest easy knowing you’re in your own safe nest.