What does gluten-free mean in cheese?

Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more people choosing to avoid gluten for health or lifestyle reasons. For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, following a strict gluten-free diet is essential to avoid adverse reactions. But for many others, going gluten-free is a choice aimed at reducing inflammation, losing weight, or simply feeling better.

Whatever the motivation, removing gluten from your diet means being vigilant about reading labels and understanding what gluten-free really means, especially when it comes to dairy products like cheese. Cheese seems like it would naturally be gluten-free, right? Surprisingly, that’s not always the case.

So what does gluten-free really mean when it comes to cheese? Here’s a comprehensive look at gluten and cheese, what to watch out for, and how to find cheese you can enjoy while maintaining a gluten-free lifestyle.

What is gluten?

Before diving into what gluten-free means for cheese, it helps to understand what exactly gluten is. Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). The two specific gluten proteins are:

– Gliadin
– Glutenin

For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, these gluten proteins can trigger an abnormal immune response that damages the small intestine. This causes a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms and prevents proper absorption of nutrients from food.

Gluten is found not only in foods made directly from gluten-containing grains but also in foods with ingredients derived from them. This makes following a gluten-free diet more difficult than simply avoiding breads, pastas and baked goods. Cross-contamination is also a concern, as even tiny amounts of gluten can cause issues for those who are highly sensitive.

Is cheese naturally gluten-free?

Cheese is made by coagulating the milk protein casein. No gluten-containing ingredients are inherently required to make cheese from milk. So in its purest form – as milk curds pressed into blocks or wheels – cheese itself does not contain gluten.

However, many types of cheese have additional ingredients added during processing that can introduce gluten. The most common examples include:

– Flavorings – Things like chips, herbs, spices, vegetables and even gluten-containing grains can be mixed into cheese for flavor and texture.

– Stabilizers – To improve texture and prevent separation, cheesemakers may add stabilizers and emulsifiers that contain gluten.

– Anti-caking agents – Powdered cheeses often contain anti-caking agents made with gluten.

– Cross-contamination – Shared equipment and facilities increase the risk of gluten cross-contamination during cheesemaking, packaging and processing.

So while cheese is not inherently a gluten-containing food, the realities of large-scale manufacturing mean there are opportunities for gluten to make its way into many types of cheese through processing, ingredients and cross-contamination.

Reading labels

Reading the label is the only way to know for certain if a cheese product contains gluten. With cheese, it’s not enough to assume it’s gluten-free based on the type of cheese. You have to read the ingredients list and nutrition facts carefully every time.

Here are the key things to look for:

Ingredients list

Scan the ingredients list for any obvious sources of gluten like wheat, barley, rye or oats. Also watch out for less obvious sources like malt vinegar, flavorings or spices that could contain gluten.

Allergen statements

Look for an allergen statement on the label listing out any major food allergens. In the U.S., this will typically say “Contains wheat” if the product includes gluten.

“Gluten-free” label

If you see the term “gluten-free” on the label, then the cheese must meet the FDA requirements to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This is the safest bet.

No gluten ingredients, but no “gluten-free” claim

Sometimes a cheese contains no gluten ingredients, but is also not labeled as gluten-free. This means potential cross-contamination is a higher risk. Use your best judgment if choosing these products.

Other warnings

Phrases like “Processed in a facility that also processes wheat products” are a tip-off that cross-contamination is likely. Avoid these cheeses if you are highly sensitive.

Types of cheese that often contain gluten

While any cheese could potentially contain gluten depending on ingredients and processing factors, these varieties are more likely to include gluten-containing additives:

Flavored cheeses

Smoked gouda, garlic and herb cheddar, pepper jack – these flavored cheeses frequently contain glutenous additives and flavorings. Stick to plainer versions or verify gluten-free status before eating.

Cheese powders and spreads

Powdered cheese, spray can cheese and cheese spreads often have anti-caking agents that contain gluten. Always verify gluten-free status before consuming.

Blue cheese

The mold used to make blue cheese can sometimes contain gluten. Look for gluten-free labeled blue cheese varieties.

Soft fresh cheeses

Cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta – these moist cheeses sometimes have stabilizers and emulsifiers added that contain gluten. Check labels carefully or look for gluten-free brands.

Processed cheeses

Individually wrapped cheese slices and prepared cheese foods like cheese sauce will often contain gluten. Choose 100% real, natural cheeses instead.

Types of cheese that are often gluten-free

Sticking to traditional, natural cheese varieties with no flavorings or additives is your safest bet for avoiding gluten. Here are some cheese types that are naturally gluten-free:


Aged cheddar is considered naturally gluten-free. Opt for plain, natural varieties and cubes instead of shredded cheese which may have anti-caking agents.


Traditional fresh mozzarella and mozzarella balls do not contain gluten, making them a great choice for pizzas and other recipes.


Look for sliced or block Swiss cheese without added flavors or ingredients. Shredded Swiss may have gluten added.

Monterey Jack

Plain Monterey Jack without add-ins is typically gluten-free. Just check labels to confirm there are no gluten-containing ingredients.

Goat cheese

Plain soft goat cheese (called chèvre) as well as aged goat cheeses are naturally gluten-free options.


Traditional parmesan is gluten-free, but watch out for shredded parmesan which may contain anti-caking agents that have gluten.


Most feta cheese is gluten-free, but some manufacturing processes may introduce gluten through flavorings or brines. Check labels to confirm.

Queso fresco

This fresh Mexican cheese is naturally gluten-free when made traditionally from milk and rennet. But check for additives.

How cheese can become contaminated with gluten

Even though most natural cheeses don’t contain gluten ingredients, cross-contamination during manufacturing, processing and packaging remains a concern. Here are some common ways gluten cross-contact can occur:

Shared equipment

Cheese and gluten-containing products processed on shared equipment are at high risk for cross-contamination. Small amounts can transfer between products.

Shared facilities

Cheeses processed in facilities that also handle wheat-based ingredients have potential for airborne gluten spread through dust particles.


Anti-caking agents frequently added to shredded and powdered cheeses often contain gluten.

Brine or wash solutions

For cheeses soaked in a brine or salt solution like feta, contamination can occur if the wash contains gluten.

Flavorings or seasonings

Added ingredients like wheat, couscous, sauce flavors or malt vinegars introduce gluten through flavorings.

Colorings or preservatives

Certain colorings, starches and preservatives may derive from gluten sources.


Cheese can be cross-contaminated during packaging, especially through shared or recycled packaging materials.

The only way to be sure cheese avoids gluten cross-contact is through dedicated equipment and facilities with stringent allergen control procedures. Look for cheeses specifically labeled “gluten-free” for the most assurance.

What to look for when buying gluten-free cheese

Searching for gluten-free cheese options? Here are the key things to look for:

Naturally gluten-free varieties

Opt for cheeses like cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss that are less likely to have questionable ingredients added.

No flavorings or additives

Avoid smoked, flavored, shredded and powdered cheeses which often contain glutenous ingredients.

“Gluten-Free” label

Seeking out cheeses certified and labeled as gluten-free will give you the most certainty.

Dedicated facilities

Look for cheeses made in facilities that only handle gluten-free products to avoid cross-contact.

Reputable brands

Trustworthy brands with transparent gluten-free policies often offer the safest options.

Whole, natural forms

Blocks, slices and solid forms of cheese are less likely to have anti-caking agents versus shredded or powdered cheeses.

Are there regulations for labeling cheese gluten-free?

In the United States, foods labeled as “gluten-free” must adhere to the FDA gluten-free food labeling standards, which outline these requirements:

– The food must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.

– No gluten-containing grains, ingredients derived from them, or cross-contamination can be present.

– The “gluten-free” claim must appear on the food labeling clearly and prominently.

– Any unavoidable presence of gluten due to cross-contact must be below 20 ppm.

Cheese products labeled as “gluten-free” must comply with these standards. However, there are currently no labeling requirements for the risk of gluten cross-contact in facilities that also process gluten-containing foods. Phrases like “may contain wheat” are voluntary statements.

Are other countries’ standards different?

Yes, different countries follow varying regulations for gluten-free labeling of cheese and other foods:

– Canada: Gluten-free claims require <20 ppm of gluten like the U.S.

– European Union: Gluten-free foods must contain <20 ppm gluten.

– United Kingdom: Cheese and milk are exempt from gluten-free labeling regulations.

– Australia/New Zealand: Gluten-free claims must adhere to a “no detectable gluten” standard.

– Japan: Gluten-free labeling is voluntary but the threshold is <10 ppm gluten.

So requirements do differ, making it important to confirm the standards when purchasing cheese labeled gluten-free outside your home country. When in doubt, directly contact the cheese manufacturer for gluten specifics.

Tips for finding gluten-free cheese when dining out

Those adhering to a gluten-free diet know that dining out poses added challenges. Here are some tips for finding gluten-free cheese options when eating at restaurants:

Ask about ingredients

Don’t be afraid to ask your server detailed questions about how menu items are prepared and what ingredients they contain.

Specify allergies

Make sure to clearly communicate your gluten-free needs and any sensitivities to cross-contact.

Check for gluten-free menus

Many restaurants now designate gluten-free menu options. This helps narrow choices.

Opt for plain dishes

Simple grilled cheese on gluten-free bread or a salad with cheese are less likely to have hidden gluten.

Avoid breaded items

Breaded mozzarella sticks, fried cheese curds or other battered items may be coated in glutenous breadcrumbs.

Watch out for sauces

Cheese-based sauces, fondues and dips often have flour-based thickeners that contain gluten.

Bring your own

Packing your own gluten-free cheese helps reduce uncertainty when dining out.

Gluten-free substitutions for recipes

Adapting your favorite recipes to be gluten-free doesn’t have to mean sacrificing satisfaction. Here are some simple cheese swaps:

Breaded baked cheese –> unfried cheese

Skip any breading and bake cheese wedges, sticks or slices plain.

Beer cheese dip –> wine or cider cheese dip

Substitute gluten-free beer with wine, hard cider or broth in cheese dip recipes.

Mac and cheese –> zucchini lasagna

Swap wheat pasta for zucchini noodles in cheesy bakes for a gluten-free twist.

Cheese sauce –> block cheese

Use shredded or sliced natural cheese instead of potentially glutenous cheese sauce.

Canned soup in casseroles –> broth

Replace cream soup containing wheat flour with gluten-free broth in cheesy bakes.

Breaded mozzarella sticks –> cheese cubes

Forget the breading and coat cheese cubes in egg wash and gluten-free crumbs.

Beer fondue –> wine fondue

Wine makes a fantastic gluten-free substitute for beer in savory cheese fondues.

Is cheese gluten-free? The bottom line

While cheese is not inherently gluten-based, the reality is that many types of cheese contain or come into contact with gluten due to manufacturing processes, added ingredients, shared equipment and facilities.

The key is checking labels and ingredients lists carefully, focusing on traditionally gluten-free cheese varieties, and seeking out cheeses specifically labeled “gluten-free” for the most certainty. With some adjustments to your choices and diligent label reading, it’s definitely possible to enjoy cheese while maintaining a gluten-free diet.

When prepared carefully using gluten-free ingredients, cheese can absolutely be included as part of an elimination diet or gluten-free lifestyle. By understanding potential sources of gluten and implementing some simple substitutions, you don’t have to give up the deliciousness and versatility of cheese.

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