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 (all-spice, 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. 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 2013 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, and domestic coriander had the highest gluten levels. CFIA, in consultation with 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.
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.
Gluten-Free Spice Shopping
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.
- Choose spices and seasoning blends from companies that avoid gluten-containing ingredients, have good manufacturing practices and are willing to make a statement about their gluten-free status. Check their website and call customer service to verify.
- Don’t buy spices and seasonings from bulk bins. Cross-contamination can easily occur with scoops and gluten-containing items.
- Use extra caution when purchasing spices and seasonings from markets that focus on imported products. Some countries have less stringent food safety and labeling standards, and the store may have limited information about their suppliers.
Shelley Case is a consulting dietitian and author of Gluten-Free: The Definitive Resource Guide. She is on the advisory boards of the Canadian Celiac Association, the Celiac Disease Foundation and Gluten Intolerance Group.