Shelley Case, RD takes a look at the gluten-free status of spices.
By Shelley Case, RD
A question I’m often asked is whether spices are safe for the gluten-free diet and those living with celiac disease. Allow me to give a longer answer to that question, by first spelling out the differences among spices, herbs and seasonings, then tackling some gluten issues with spices that have recently arisen, and finally putting it all in perspective for consumers.
Herbs and spices have been used in foods and medicines for thousands of years by many cultures, and prized for their unique scents and flavors. Fresh or dried leaves, such as basil, dill, parsley, rosemary and thyme, would be examples of herbs. Spices are from the dried part of plants such as the root (ginger), seed (caraway, cardamom, cumin), bark (cinnamon), bud (clove), berry (allspice, peppercorn) or flower (saffron).
Individual herbs and spices do not usually contain gluten, though a non-gluten anti-caking agent (e.g. calcium silicate, silicon dioxide or sodium aluminum silica) may be added. In rare cases, spices can be adulterated with wheat flour or wheat starch to reduce cost and, depending on where and how the spices and herbs are packaged, it is quite possible that they could be cross-contaminated with a gluten source. Poor manufacturing practices with herbs and spices have been identified more frequently in Third World countries.
A recent report from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is illuminating. Samples of 268 domestic and imported ground spices were collected from retailers across Canada and then tested for the presence of gluten. Twenty-four percent of the samples (63 of 268) contained detectable levels of gluten ranging from 5 parts per million (ppm) to an eye-catching 20,000 ppm.
Looking more closely at the findings of the 63 positive samples, five were domestic and 58 imported. Imported cloves and mace (a spice from the nutmeg plant), and domestic coriander had the highest gluten levels.
CFIA and Health Canada concluded that 62 of the 63 spice samples (97 percent) with detectable levels of gluten did not pose a health risk. However, a sample of mace was recalled because it was exceptionally high – up to 20,000 ppm – and violated Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations.
A deciding factor in whether the spice posed a health risk was the amount a person would consume during an average meal. A single serving of a ground spice is typically quite small (about 0.5 grams). So if a spice had 160 ppm of gluten and an individual ate 0.5 grams of this spice in a meal, the amount of gluten consumed would be 0.08 milligrams (mg). Studies have found that a threshold level of less than 10 mg of gluten per day is safe for most individuals with celiac disease.
However, that mace sample at 20,000 ppm would equate to 10 mg of gluten, hitting the upper limit of safety with a single 0.5 gram serving.
For more information about safe threshold levels see Health Canada’s position on gluten-free claims.
Also, the FDA has recently published its final rule on gluten-free labeling. Learn about it here.
In food manufacturing, the term “seasonings” refers to a blend of spices and/or herbs, often combined with a carrier agent (e.g., salt, sugar, lactose, starches or flours) and an anti-caking agent. Gluten-containing ingredients that are used in seasonings can include wheat flour, wheat starch, wheat crumbs or hydrolyzed wheat protein.
Fortunately U.S. and Canadian food regulations require these wheat-based ingredients to be declared on the label.
Though herbs and spices are typically consumed in small quantities, due diligence is still essential to ensure that your gluten-free efforts aren’t derailed by daily use of a beloved spice or seasoning.
Shelley Case, RD, is an international celiac nutrition expert, a featured columnist in Allergic Living magazine and author and author of Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide. See more at www.glutenfreediet.ca.