Eating a healthy gluten free diet means eating lots of fresh whole foods, like high quality meats, fish, and eggs, vegetables and fruit, and nuts and seeds. A great way to add some flavor to these otherwise simple foods is with herbs and spices.
But of course, it is important to make sure that anything you add to your food during or after cooking is also gluten free. So it is important to evaluate herbs and spices before using them.
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What Is Gluten?
Before we dive into whether spices are gluten free or not, it’s important to first understand what gluten is. Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It gives bread and other baked goods an elastic texture and helps them to rise.
For people with celiac disease or non celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten causes inflammation, and can cause a range of symptoms, from gastrointestinal distress like bloating and diarrhea, to full blown autoimmune diseases like celiac, rheumatoid arthritis, and hypothyroidism.
Spices are Naturally Gluten Free
Spices in their simple and unadulterated form are naturally gluten free. However, many companies add fillers to spices in order to bulk up the volume of the spice or herb which dilutes the amount of actual spice in an effort to increase profit margin. Fillers may also be added to make spices last longer or to prevent clumping.
Unfortunately, these fillers are generally not good for our bodies and many fillers can contain gluten. In addition, some spice fillers or additives may increase the risk of autoimmune issues including celiac disease.
Common filler ingredients in spices to watch out for
- Grain based fillers (a comprehensive list of terms can be found here): used to add volume to spices and dilute the amount of actual spices
- Grain based anti caking agents: many spice manufacturers use anti caking agents to keep ingredients from clumping together after they are packaged. Unfortunately, many of these contain gluten, and many are also tough for our stomachs and bodies to break down, which can be detrimental to gut health.
- Industrial Dyes: dyes may be added to enhance the color of the spice or herb which makes it appear more fresh, especially for spices or herbs that are traditionally bold in color, like chili powder or turmeric.
- Modified food starch: modified food starch is sometimes added to spices or herbs, particularly as part of a blend to act as a thickener or emulsifier.
- Maltodextrin: maltodextrin is sometimes added when a spice seasoning blend has a higher sugar level (e.g., a barbeque rub with some brown sugar) which will burn or brown when going through processing. Maltodextrin can help to reduce the likelihood that the seasoning will burn. In addition, maltodextrin may be added to help prolong shelf life by reducing moisture absorption in spices and herbs. Maltodextrin can be derived from wheat and other grains, so if you aren’t sure, it is best to contact the manufacturer.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG): MSG can add the “umami” or “fifth taste” to foods so it is added to some products as a cheap way to enhance flavor. Aside from being a toxic food ingredient, MSG can be derived from wheat.
In addition to powdered spices, liquid spice extracts like vanilla extract that are used frequently in baking can contain unwanted additives. One of the most common additions is alcohol, which is used to preserve the extract. However, many of these alcohols are grain based and should be investigated. You can purchase an alcohol free extract or make your own at home.
In addition, watch out for “imitation” flavors. While true extracts are made from the source itself (like a vanilla bean), imitation flavors are not. For example, imitation vanilla is made from vanillin, which is manufactured from a substance called guaiacol. Most of the world’s guaiacol supply comes from petroleum. The vanillin is diluted with a liquid (usually either alcohol or propylene glycol). Then, it is often colored to make it appear like a true extract. Caramel coloring is commonly used for this. Caramel coloring can be derived from grains like wheat and corn.
As always, it is important to be aware of cross-contamination. Cross contamination can happen when the same equipment is used to produce or package your spices or herbs that is used to produce or package other gluten-containing products. Cross contamination may also occur in a restaurant setting. For example, a cook might use the same hand or scoop to include spices in your dish (or as a garnish) that they use for a gluten containing ingredient.
To help mitigate risk, we recommend never buying bulk spices from stores that you fill up your own containers. This can lead to accidental cross contamination from spices that aren’t gluten free!
Organic vs Conventional Spices
Organic herbs and spices are a better choice for those with celiac disease and non celiac gluten sensitivity. Organic herbs and spices aren’t sprayed with the same toxic chemicals (like glyphosate) that conventional spices can be. It is best to avoid these chemicals for a number of health reasons, but especially for those with celiac disease or otherwise compromised gut health, as there is a correlation between glyphosate exposure and increased incidence of celiac disease as well as GI induced inflammation.
Popular Gluten Free Spices
- Italian Seasoning
- Curry Powder
- Onion Powder
- Chile Powder
- Cayenne Pepper
- Paprika (sweet and smoked)
Additional gluten free herbs & spices
- Lemon Grass
- Bay Leaf
What Brands Can I Use?
The Bottom Line
Being aware of your ingredients – even those that feel as minor as herbs and spices – is the first step to having a healthy gluten-free diet and to prevent the negative effects and symptoms of celiac disease and gluten sensitivities.
If you are unsure if your symptoms are related to gluten, take our free gluten sensitivity test!