Gluten free means a food item does not contain the protein gluten, which occurs naturally in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten free products are essential for individuals with celiac disease, a reaction to the protein that causes the body to attack the lining of the small intestine.
Food and Drug Administration regulations changed in August 2013 for packaging containing the words "gluten free," "no gluten," or "without gluten." Prior to the changes, items labeled as such did not need to meet any minimum gluten level requirements. To have the gluten free label, the food must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten.
Gluten is often found in breads, cakes, cookies, cereals and pastas. Many companies produce gluten-free versions of these products using alternative ingredients such as rice or corn. Other products such as sauces and soups use gluten-containing ingredients as thickening agents.
Some products are naturally gluten free; fruits, vegetables and eggs are examples. Some seemingly gluten-free items can become contaminated during the manufacturing process. Oats don't contain gluten but may be processed on the same equipment as grain products that do contain gluten. Packaging often indicates if a product is manufactured in the same location as foods containing tree nuts, wheat and other potential allergens.