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    You Ask, I Answer: Gluten, Soy Sauce, and “Wheat-Free” Labeling

    sanj_gluten_free_tamari__45649_stdLast Thursday, I got the results of my gluten panel.  Verdict: I have celiac disease.

    Today I had lunch with a coworker at a “health food” restaurant.  We specifically chose it because their menu lets you know which entrees contain soy, gluten, and nuts.

    The dish I wanted (which had baked tofu) had a “gluten” sign next to it.  I asked the waitress where the gluten in the dish was coming from.  Her response was: “We marinade our tofu in soy sauce.”

    I’m still very new to this gluten thing, but I don’t understand how soy sauce can contain gluten.  Isn’t it just soybeans?

    I know I have seen some wheat-free soy sauce, but everything I’ve read so far says that “wheat free” and “gluten-free” are not the same thing.  So, is soy sauce a condiment I can never have again?

    I would REALLY appreciate any help you can give me.

    — Estelle Nardelli
    (City Withheld), NJ

    I can’t say I envy you.  As if managing food labels without allergies wasn’t its own Rubik cube, tacking on gluten insensitivity heightens the challenge.

    As many people living with celiacs soon learn, there is a long list of preservatives, additives, and wheat byproducts that sound absolutely harmless, but can cause severe problems when consumed.  Soy sauce is one area where I find many individuals with celiac get confused, and sometimes go overboard with restrictions.  Allow me to provide some clarification.

    Traditional soy sauce is made from a mixture of soybeans and wheat (since you are wondering, wheat is used to help mellow out the intense flavor of the fermented soybeans).  So, yes, most soy sauce contains gluten.

    Tamari, traditionally speaking, is an all soy-based, wheat-free soy sauce (hence its significantly stronger flavor).  For whatever reason, though, most commercial varieties contain a little wheat (less than standard soy sauce, but enough to cause major problems for anyone avoiding gluten).

    You can find wheat-free tamari in mos stores, though (San-J is the one I have spotted most regularly).

    Although wheat-free does not necessarily mean gluten-free, wheat-free tamari is an exception.

    “Wheat-free” means exactly that — a food product that does not contain wheat.  It may, however, contain other grains that contain gluten, such as barley or rye.

    So, for instance, a “wheat-free” cookie is not necessarily gluten-free.

    In the case of wheat-free tamari (as is the case with San-J’s), the wheat is not replaced with a gluten-containing grain, so it is also gluten-free.

    The folks at San-J recognized the vast confusion out there and recently changed the label of their wheat-free tamari to now say “gluten-free”.  Many consumers with celiac interpreted the “wheat-free” label as one that was not suitable for them.

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