Cocoa to Cornstarch: Are These 10 Ingredients Gluten-Free?

I have been aware of gluten-free cooking and celiac disease for a long time — much longer, in fact, than it has been in the public eye. One of my mother's best friends was diagnosed with celiac disease many years ago, and ever since then I have been acutely aware of the challenges of cooking gluten-free. Every time my mother's friend comes over I pause and look at yet another ingredient and ask myself: Is this gluten-free?

Here are 10 common ingredients from my own cupboards and the verdict for each.

My mother's friend is acutely, severely intolerant of gluten. Even the tiniest trace amount of gluten will give her terrible pain. She is one of the most gracious, kind people I know, and since she was diagnosed so long before gluten-free eating became well-known and accommodated, she has spent many years gently asking restaurants whether the croutons were ever in the salad, or if flour was used in browning the meat. It has been a long, difficult road for her, and I love to make gluten-free treats for her whenever she comes to visit.

But I also often panic just a bit and, out of fear that I will make her sick, obsessively read through all the ingredient lists in my recipes, looking for the slightest trace of gluten.

I also have had to learn which ingredients are gluten-free and which are not. Here's a list of common ingredients from my own cupboards, with the verdict on each.

One important caveat: ANYTHING can be contaminated with gluten during processing. If you want to be on the ultra-safe side, it's always best to buy ingredients that are certified gluten-free. This list is only stating whether the ingredients or products are naturally free of gluten or not.

Are These 10 Common Ingredients Gluten-Free?

  1. Buckwheat - YES. Buckwheat, in spite of its name, is not related to wheat at all. It's actually the seed of a flowering herb in its own family, separate from wheat, and it's totally gluten-free. Here's a little more info on buckwheat.
  2. Cocoa Powder - YES. All pure, dark cocoa powders should be gluten-free. Hot cocoa mixes are another story; look out for malt and other additives.
  3. Cornmeal - YES. Cornmeal is a great grain regardless of its gluten-free properties, and I love to use it in gluten-free recipes. Normal caveat on contamination applies, though. Look for gluten-free cornmeal.
  4. Cornstarch - YES. In spite of its flour-like appearance, yes, cornstarch has no gluten. Along with potato starch, it's a very helpful ingredient in many gluten-free recipes.
  5. Marshmallows - MAYBE. I made Rice Krispie treats for a party one time, and my mother's friend and I spent 15 minutes poring over the ingredient list for marshmallows and the Rice Krispies, trying to decide if they were safe or not. The final answer is: maybe. Some marshmallows include a starch that has gluten in it. Jet-Puffed (Kraft) marshmallows should be gluten-free, as are some store brands. But read the label first!
  6. Powdered Sugar - MAYBE. Like the marshmallows, some powdered sugar brands include a starch that also has gluten in it. So be careful, and read the labels first.
  7. Quinoa - YES - Another wheat-like grain that is actually a seed, quinoa is a great source of protein, and also of flour for gluten-free baking.
  8. Rice - YES . This may seem obvious now, but when I was first researching gluten-free foods, I thought ALL grains were out. But it's only the wheat and grass-related grains. Rice is fine, and very useful in gluten-free baking.
  9. Spelt - NO - Spelt has a reputation as a "healthier" grain, but as far as gluten-free cooking goes, it's out. It is a direct relative of wheat, and while its protein content may be higher and therefore better for those of us without a gluten intolerance, it will cause problems for those with gluten-intolerance. One interesting note, however, is that some people who simply have a mild intolerance say that they can tolerate spelt better than wheat. But you should still avoid it completely when cooking for those with a gluten or wheat intolerance.
  10. Vinegar - MAYBE. It's very important to read labels on vinegars. Most distilled vinegars will be gluten-free; even if they started as grain spirits, any gluten will have been removed in the distilling process. But some vinegars (malt vinegar, some apple cider vinegars, as well as some specialty Asian vinegars) will still have wheat proteins remaining. So read labels carefully!

Those are just a few of the ingredients in my own cupboards I've had to reexamine when cooking for gluten-free friends. What about you? Are there ingredients that have surprised you with their gluten content? Or ingredients that were unexpectedly gluten-free? Please share!

Related: The Oat Conundrum: Are Oats Gluten-Free?

(Images: Faith Durand)