Is feta goat cheese gluten-free?

Feta cheese is a classic Greek cheese made from sheep’s milk or goat’s milk. With its crumbly texture and tangy, salty flavor, feta is a popular ingredient in Mediterranean dishes, salads, and more. But is feta cheese actually gluten-free? For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, knowing the gluten status of feta cheese is important.

The Short Answer

Yes, traditional feta cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk is naturally gluten-free. Feta cheese is not made with any gluten-containing ingredients. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when buying feta cheese:

  • Watch out for “feta-style” cheese made from cow’s milk, which may contain gluten.
  • Check labels for additives like starch, wheat flour, or preservatives that could contain gluten.
  • Look for brands that are certified gluten-free if you are highly sensitive.

As long as you purchase authentic feta made from sheep’s or goat’s milk, you can enjoy it as part of a gluten-free diet.

What is Feta Cheese?

Feta is a classic brined cheese that originated in Greece. Traditional feta is made from sheep’s milk or a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk. By Greek law, feta cheese has to be made from at least 70% sheep’s milk to be considered true, authentic feta.

To make feta, the cheese curds are pressed into blocks or cylindrical shapes. The cheese blocks are then cured by soaking them in a brine solution of saltwater, whey, or milk. Feta is aged for a minimum of two months, though high-quality feta is often aged for longer. This brining process gives feta its distinctive salty, tangy flavor and crumbly texture.

In addition to Greece, feta is now popular around the world, including in the United States. Feta made outside of Greece is sometimes produced from pasteurized cow’s milk. Cow’s milk feta has a different flavor and texture than traditional feta.

Why Traditional Feta is Gluten-Free

Authentic feta cheese made from sheep’s milk or goat’s milk is naturally gluten-free. This is because the main ingredients in feta cheese are:

  • Sheep’s milk or goat’s milk
  • Salt
  • Rennet or other coagulating enzymes
  • Probiotic cultures

None of these ingredients contain gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. Dairy products like milk and cheese do not naturally contain gluten proteins.

Here are some key reasons why traditional feta cheese is gluten-free:

  • It is made from sheep’s milk and/or goat’s milk, which do not contain gluten.
  • No gluten grains or gluten-containing additives are used in producing traditional feta.
  • The milk for feta cheese is simply curdled using enzymes like rennet, not wheat-derived enzymes.
  • It does not contain wheat flour, hydrolyzed wheat protein, malt extract, or various wheat starches often used in processed cheeses.

Some cheese varieties like breadcheese may contain gluten if wheat flour is added to the cheese curds before culturing and aging. However, standard feta cheese does not contain added wheat or gluten ingredients.

Risk of Gluten Cross-Contamination

Although authentic feta cheese is gluten-free, there is a small chance of cross-contamination occurring during production and packaging. Trace amounts of gluten could make their way into feta cheese through:

  • Shared dairy processing equipment that processes gluten grains
  • Packaging that contains gluten residues
  • Unsanitary food handling practices

Many reputable feta brands take steps to avoid cross-contamination and test their products to verify gluten-free status. But there is no way to completely eliminate the risk.

For people with celiac disease or severe gluten sensitivity, this low risk of gluten cross-contamination with feta may be a concern. Those who are highly sensitive may want to choose brands that specifically state they are gluten-free or processed in dedicated gluten-free facilities.

Ingredients to Watch Out For

When buying feta cheese, double check the label and ingredients list to watch out for potential sources of gluten. Here are some ingredients that could indicate a feta cheese product contains or may contain gluten:

  • Grains or flours: Hydrolyzed wheat protein, wheat flour, wheat starch, barley malt, etc.
  • Stabilizers and anti-caking agents: Dextrin, maltodextrin
  • Preservatives: Citric acid (if wheat-derived)
  • Blue cheese cultures: Cultures derived from bread or beer
  • Flavorings: Malt extract, yeast extract, natural flavors (may be wheat-based)

Cow’s milk feta from brands like Kraft may also contain questionable ingredients. Always verify the ingredients if buying any flavored, low-fat, or non-traditional feta products.

Best Practices When Purchasing Feta

To ensure you choose a gluten-free feta cheese, look for these signs when purchasing feta:

  • Made from sheep’s milk and/or goat’s milk
  • Imported from Greece for traditional quality
  • No suspicious ingredients like wheat starch, flour, malt, etc.
  • Labeled as “gluten-free” by the manufacturer
  • Processed in a dedicated gluten-free facility (if sensitive to cross-contact)

Some reputable feta cheese brands that are labeled gluten-free include:

  • Krinos
  • Mt. Vikos
  • Valbreso Feta
  • Papa Christos
  • Dodoni

Always double check the label each time you purchase feta, even if buying the same brand, since ingredients can change. If dining out, also inquire about the ingredients in any feta cheese dishes.

Feta Made from Cow’s Milk

“Feta-style” cheese made from cow’s milk instead of sheep’s or goat’s milk may or may not be gluten-free. Brands like Kraft make feta cheese primarily from pasteurized cow’s milk.

Since cow’s milk itself does not contain gluten, feta-style cheese made from cow’s milk could be gluten-free. However, these products often include stabilizers and preservatives that could potentially introduce gluten:

  • Stabilizers like wheat starch
  • Anti-caking agents with wheat-based dextrin
  • Preservatives or citric acid derived from wheat
  • Flavorings or enzymes that contain gluten

If choosing feta made from cow’s milk, carefully inspect the ingredients list and look for a gluten-free certification on the label when possible. Or opt for a brand made from goat’s or sheep’s milk to be safest.

Is All Feta Cheese Gluten-Free?

No, not all feta cheese on the market today is guaranteed gluten-free. Here are some examples of feta cheese that may contain gluten:

  • Flavored feta cheese: Garlic and herb feta or spice-infused varieties may have questionable ingredients.
  • Low-fat feta cheese: Often includes additives like wheat starch.
  • Feta crumbles: May contain anti-caking agents with gluten.
  • Pre-sliced feta cheese: Preservatives used may introduce gluten.
  • Blue feta: Some blue cheese cultures are derived from bread or beer.

Additionally, some mass-produced feta cheeses may risk cross-contamination with gluten-containing cereals during processing. Your safest bet is to choose traditional, natural feta cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk.

What About Homemade Feta?

Homemade feta cheese is naturally gluten-free if made from goat’s or sheep’s milk. Cow’s milk can also be used. To make homemade feta:

  1. Heat milk and add coagulating enzymes like rennet or lemon juice to curdle the milk.
  2. Drain and press the curds into a block mold.
  3. Cut the cheese block into cubes and soak in a saltwater brine for multiple weeks, changing the brine regularly.
  4. Age the cheese for at least 2 months for full flavor development.

As long as care is taken to avoid cross-contamination from work surfaces, equipment, and hands, homemade feta cheese made from goat’s or sheep’s milk should be gluten-free.

Is Feta Safe for a Gluten-Free Diet?

Most experts consider traditionally made feta cheese from sheep’s and goat’s milk to be safe for gluten-free diets:

  • The Celiac Disease Foundation states that feta cheese is gluten-free.
  • The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center lists feta as a gluten-free cheese option.
  • The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America includes feta on their safe food list when made with goat’s or sheep’s milk.

Of course, it is always wise to check labels and ingredient lists carefully, and selection of brands certified gluten-free is preferred for celiac disease. Those with severe gluten sensitivities may also wish to choose cheese processed in dedicated gluten-free facilities.

Should Feta Be Avoided on a Gluten-Free Diet?

Most mainstream medical resources consider authentic feta cheese to be gluten-free and safe for gluten-free diets. However, some advocates of the gluten-free lifestyle recommend avoiding feta cheese even when no gluten ingredients are present.

For example, advocates like Dr. Alessio Fasano suggest that some people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be casein intolerant. Casein is a protein found in dairy products like cheese. According to this theory, the molecular structure of casein is similar enough to gluten that it can trigger issues in sensitive individuals.

However, there is limited clinical evidence that all cheese is universally problematic on a gluten-free diet. Many well-respected celiac resources still list cheeses like feta as safe when made without gluten grains. But individuals may make their own choice on including or excluding cheeses based on personal tolerance.

Other Tips for Following a Gluten-Free Diet with Feta

Here are some other tips for safely eating feta cheese on a gluten-free diet:

  • Check the ingredients list each time you buy feta, even the same brand.
  • Look for feta sealed in brine or brine-packed feta to avoid anti-caking agents.
  • Opt for brands that state “gluten-free” clearly on the label.
  • Purchase feta made from goat’s or sheep’s milk instead of cow’s milk varieties.
  • Avoid flavored feta cheeses and low-fat feta products.
  • Select Greek or Cypriot feta for the most authentic quality.

With proper precautions, most people following gluten-free diets should be able to safely enjoy traditional feta cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk.

The Bottom Line

Here is a quick summary answer to whether feta cheese is gluten-free:

Yes, traditional feta cheese made from sheep’s milk or goat’s milk is naturally gluten-free. Feta cheese does not inherently contain gluten. However, always check labels for potential wheat-based additives in flavored fetas or feta made from cow’s milk.

Look for brands clearly labeled “gluten-free” or certifications from GFCO, NSF, or ELISA testing laboratories. Reputable, major feta cheese brands imported from Greece in brine are generally the safest gluten-free options. With proper precautions, most people with celiac disease or on a gluten-free diet can safely eat feta cheese.

Leave a Comment