Does grain free mean gluten-free?

Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more people looking to avoid gluten for health or dietary reasons. For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, following a strict gluten-free diet is essential. But for others, going gluten-free may simply be a lifestyle choice.

This raises an important question – if a food product is labeled as “grain free,” does that automatically mean it’s also gluten-free? The short answer is no, grain free does not always equal gluten-free. While there can be some overlap between grain free and gluten-free foods, the terms are not interchangeable. Understanding the difference is important for anyone following a gluten-free diet.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in certain grains like wheat, barley, and rye. Specifically, gluten is composed of two proteins – gliadin and glutenin. When flour from these grains is mixed with water, the gluten proteins form elastic strands that give bread and other baked goods their chewy texture.

People with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity cannot tolerate these gluten proteins. When they eat gluten, it triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine. This can lead to symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, fatigue, and more. The only treatment is a 100% strict lifelong gluten-free diet.

Some other grains like oats, spelt, and wheat variants like einkorn and emmer also contain gluten. So grains are a major source of gluten in the diet. But gluten can also be found in many processed foods, sauces, dressings, soups, candies, and even cosmetics. Reading labels is crucial when following a gluten-free diet.

What Does Grain Free Mean?

Grain free refers to foods or diets that completely exclude grains. On a grain free diet, foods like wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, sorghum, and other cereal grains are not eaten.

Grain free diets have become popular for a variety of reasons:

  • Some claim reducing grains can aid weight loss or help manage blood sugar
  • Many believe grain free is more natural for humans from an evolutionary perspective
  • For those with grain allergies or sensitivities, going grain free eliminates trigger foods
  • Companies market grain free pet foods claiming health benefits for dogs and cats

The most common grain free substitutes are nuts, seeds, legumes, coconut, avocado, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes. There is some overlap with low carb and paleo diets, but grain free is considered its own category of eating. Packaged grain free products are now widely available.

Key Differences Between Grain Free and Gluten Free

While grain free and gluten free diets do share some similarities, there are important differences:

All gluten free foods are grain free, but not vice versa

Avoiding all grains means you automatically avoid gluten. So grain free diets are inherently gluten-free. But the reverse is not true – gluten free is not automatically grain free.

Many gluten-free grains are permitted on a gluten free diet

Grains that do not contain gluten like rice, corn, millet, sorghum, teff, and oats (certified gluten-free) can be included in a gluten-free diet. But these grains are not allowed on a grain free diet.

Non-grain foods with gluten must be avoided on a gluten free diet

While grains are the main source of gluten, some other foods like condiments, broths, sauces, and processed meat products may contain gluten as additives. These would be permitted on a grain free diet, but need to be avoided when gluten-free.

Different labeling terms

Packages labeled gluten-free must adhere to specific regulations with a maximum threshold of 20ppm of gluten. No regulations exist yet for grain free claims. Companies may have different definitions.

Different target markets

Gluten free caters to those medically required to avoid gluten. Grain free appeals to those avoiding grains for lifestyle reasons or grain allergies/intolerances that do not involve gluten.

Is Grain Free Healthier Than Gluten Free?

Given these differences, is one diet intrinsically healthier than the other? According to experts, there are pros and cons to both approaches:

Potential benefits of grain free diets

  • Elimination of gut irritants like lectins, phytates, and others found in grains
  • Reduced inflammation which may improve conditions like arthritis or autoimmunity
  • Lower glycemic load resulting in more stable blood sugar levels
  • Increased intake of produce, healthy fats and proteins
  • Avoidance of pesticides, preservatives and additives sometimes used in grain products

Potential benefits of gluten free diets

  • Healing of the gut for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance
  • Resolution of any autoimmune responses triggered by gluten
  • Increased awareness of diet and label reading
  • Potential weight normalization if previous malabsorption issues

Downsides of grain free diets

  • Difficulty meeting fiber and carbohydrate needs long-term
  • May be low in certain nutrients like B vitamins, iron and fiber
  • Social limitations around meals if grains are avoided
  • Higher cost of grain substitutes

Downsides of gluten free diets

  • Learning curve around label reading and avoiding cross-contamination
  • Higher cost and difficulty finding gluten-free packaged foods
  • Social limitations around navigating meals with others
  • Potential issues with inadequate fiber, vitamins, minerals if poorly planned

Experts agree that both grain free and gluten free diets should be well-balanced and nutrient dense. Work with a dietitian knowledgeable in food allergies and elimination diets when making major dietary changes to ensure nutritional needs are met.

Common Questions

Is corn gluten-free?

Yes. Corn does not contain gluten, so corn and products made from corn can be included in a gluten-free diet. However, those following a grain free diet would still need to avoid corn.

Is oatmeal gluten-free?

Oats are naturally gluten-free, but are often contaminated with gluten grains during growing and processing. For a product to be labeled gluten-free, oats must be certified as uncontaminated. Only oats and oat products with a gluten-free label should be considered gluten-free.

Is quinoa gluten-free?

Yes, quinoa is a naturally gluten-free seed that can be enjoyed on a gluten-free or grain free diet. Always check labels since quinoa is at risk for cross-contamination.

Are potatoes gluten-free?

Yes. Potatoes do not naturally contain gluten. However, watch out for seasonings, cooking oils or shared cooking equipment that may introduce traces of gluten.

Is gluten-free bread healthier than regular bread?

Not necessarily. The nutrients in gluten-free and regular bread depend on the specific ingredients used. Gluten-free breads often have more fat, sugar, and refined starches added to improve texture. But they may be healthier for those who need to follow a gluten-free diet.

Are grains bad for you?

Grains can be part of a healthy diet for most people. Whole grains provide important nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, iron and magnesium. Refined grains should be minimized, but whole grains contribute valuable nutrition. Unless you have celiac disease, a grain intolerance or choose grain free for other reasons, grains can remain part of an overall balanced approach.

Reading Labels

When shopping for gluten-free or grain-free products, proper label reading is a must:

  • Look for a gluten-free certification symbol or language clearly stating the product is gluten-free. Terms like “made in a gluten-free facility” are not sufficient.
  • For grain-free items, check the ingredients list for any wheat, barley, rye and other grains.
  • Beware of hidden sources of gluten like maltodextrin, soy sauce, modified food starch and natural flavorings.
  • Consider potential cross-contamination from equipment, facility and manufacturing processes.
  • If in doubt, contact the manufacturer for more details or look for another product.

Learning to decipher labels takes practice, but is crucial for confidently selecting gluten-free and grain-free foods. Support groups and gluten-free living resources can help strengthen these label reading skills.


Many recipes can easily be adapted to be gluten-free, grain-free or both. Simple ingredient swaps and substitutions make it easy. Here are some examples:

Gluten Free Baking

Instead of Use
All purpose wheat flour Gluten-free flour blend
Breadcrumbs Gluten-free breadcrumbs or pulse rolled oats in food processor
Wheat pasta Gluten-free pasta or zucchini noodles

Grain Free Baking

Instead of Use
All purpose flour Almond flour, coconut flour or flax meal
Breadcrumbs Finely chopped nuts
Oatmeal Chopped nuts or shredded unsweetened coconut

Everyday Dishes

Instead of Use
Pasta Zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash or bean-based gluten-free pasta
Breaded chicken Bake plain poultry using gluten-free panko breadcrumbs or almond meal
Cereal Chia pudding or nut & fruit granola
Burger bun Lettuce wrap or gluten-free bun
Soy Sauce Coconut aminos

Potential Pitfalls

It’s important to be aware of common pitfalls when navigating gluten-free and grain-free diets:

  • Relying too much on processed gluten-free replacements can lead to less nutritious choices high in sugar, fat and calories.
  • Newly diagnosed gluten-related disorders can lead to deficiencies without proper nutrition education and planning.
  • Gluten cross-contamination is common from things like shared kitchen tools, countertops, condiments and bulk bins.
  • Social events with unfamiliar foods make it hard to ensure choices are gluten/grain free.
  • Travel and dining out provide fewer gluten-free and grain-free options.
  • Friends and family may not understand the seriousness of keeping a gluten-free or grain-free diet.

Being aware of these potential issues can help you take steps to overcome them through proper planning, education and diligent label reading. With time, following these diets strictly becomes second nature.

The Bottom Line

  • Grain free diets eliminate all grains and are inherently gluten-free.
  • Gluten-free diets allow some gluten-free grains, but prohibit all sources of gluten.
  • Grain free is more restrictive but may provide benefits if you have grain intolerances or want to control blood sugar.
  • Gluten free is essential for managing celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
  • Read labels closely, watch for cross-contamination and choose whole foods on either diet.
  • Work with a dietitian or doctor if making major dietary changes to ensure nutritional adequacy.

While grain free and gluten free have some overlap, they are unique diets with different end goals. Being gluten-free is mandatory for those with gluten disorders, while grain free is optional. Do your research to determine if one of these diets could benefit your individual health needs and circumstances.

Leave a Comment