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What to Know About Gluten-Free Cheese

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 27, 2021

Are you on a gluten-free diet? If so, you’re probably on the lookout for any food containing gluten including bread, cereals, and pasta. But foods like cheese can be a bit more confusing. 

Is cheese gluten-free?

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein that’s found naturally in wheat, protein, and rye. It’s also in many processed foods like bread, pasta, noodles, and cereals. 

Gluten is linked to several conditions. Those who cannot gluten usually have one of two conditions.

Celiac disease. Some who can't tolerate gluten have an autoimmune condition called celiac disease. It causes your body to launch an immune response in your small intestine when you eat gluten. This reaction eventually damages the lining of your small intestine. This causes it to absorb fewer nutrients.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Others who are sensitive to gluten may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. They might have symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and muscle pains after eating gluten. Their blood tests for celiac disease and endoscopies can be normal. But their symptoms improve when they remove gluten from their diet. Experts call this non-celiac gluten sensitivity. 

What to Know About Cheese

Each American eats an average of about 34 pounds of cheese every year. The main ingredient in cheese is milk. The milk may come from a cow, sheep, goat, water buffalo, or a combination of these animals.

Certain types of culture bacteria are added to make cheese more acidic, enhance flavor, or improve texture. Rennet is a set of enzymes that are introduced to help curdle milk and form cheese. Some cheeses are then flavored with things like spices, herbs, or nuts.

Most cheeses are gluten-free. But it’s still important to read labels of all processed foods before you eat them.

If cheese is 100% natural, it's probably gluten-free. These cheeses include:

  • Swiss
  • Cheddar
  • Feta
  • Mozzarella
  • Provolone
  • Goat
  • Brie
  • Parmesan

Cheeses That May Have Gluten

The FDA allows processed and packaged food to be labeled “gluten-free” if it contains no wheat, rye, barley, or any crossbreeds of these grains. Gluten-free foods may have also been processed to remove gluten. It must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten to be considered gluten-free.

That's the lowest amount of gluten that can be detected with available scientific tools.

It’s important to read the labels of any cheese and cheese products. Some cheeses and cheese products may have certain ingredients added in. These can include:

Cottage cheese. Cottage cheese doesn’t usually have gluten. But some brands may use modified food starch or wheat starch.

Blue cheese. Most blue cheese is gluten-free. Mold spores are added to the milk mixture to make blue cheese. These spores are sometimes grown on rye or wheat bread. But blue cheese rarely contains more than 20 ppm gluten. So it should not trigger a gluten allergy.

Shredded cheese. You can usually find several different types of pre-shredded cheese at any grocery store. The cheese itself is almost always gluten-free. But manufacturers may use a starch with gluten to prevent the shreds of cheese from sticking together.

Cheese spreads. These are often gluten-free. Some brands may use gluten to help with the consistency of the spread. Check the label.

Specialty cheese with beer. Some cheeses may contain beer. Be cautious with beer if you’re on a gluten-free diet. Many beers contain gluten as they’re traditionally brewed with wheat, barley, or rye. Some beers are gluten-free. They’re made from naturally gluten-free grains like sorghum.

‌Cheesecake. The filling of cheesecake is usually gluten-free. But the crust is typically made with flour or graham crackers. It’s not a good idea to eat just the filling of a cheesecake. The likelihood of cross-contact with the crust is very high.

Cross-contact. Cheese is often served with crackers. So there’s a possibility of cross-contact with gluten. For some people with celiac disease, just 10 milligrams of gluten (about 1/350 of a piece of bread) can cause damage to your small intestine.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: “Celiac Disease, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, and Food Allergy: How are they different?”

British Medical Journal: “GLUTEN-FREE DIETS.”

Cleveland Clinic: “How to Spot Those Sneaky Sources of Gluten,” “The Surprising Truth About Gluten-Free Food and Weight Loss.”

Clinics in Dermatology: “Details of the gluten-free diet for the patient with dermatitis herpetiformis.”

Food and Drug Administration (FDA): “'Gluten-Free' Means What It Says.”

Journal of Dairy Research: “Cheese-making with a vegetable rennet from Cardo (Cynara cardunculus).”

Lowell, J.P. The Gluten-Free Revolution: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know about Losing the Wheat, Reclaiming Your Health, and Eating Happily Ever After, Henry Holt and Company, 2015.

National Celiac Association: “Understanding gluten levels.”

Nutrición Hospitalaria: “A comparison of the nutritional profile and price of gluten-free products and their gluten-containing counterparts available in the Spanish market.”

Practical Gastroenterology: “The Gluten-free Diet: Can Your Patient Afford It?”

Trends in Food Science & Technology: “Gluten free beer – A review.”

Tunick, M. The Science of Cheese, OUP USA, 2014.

Zumbusch, A. Quantification Of Flow Aids In Shredded Cheese Blends Using Enzymatic Starch Analysis And Fourier Transform Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, University of Minnesota, 2017

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