Is Cheese Gluten Free?
If you’re a cheese lover, you know that everything goes better with cheese. It pairs perfectly with toasted bread and tomato soup, and no pizza would be the same without it. Unfortunately, cheese may not be the safest choice for people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Cheese is made from milk, whether it be from a cow, sheep, goat, or some other animal. It is first pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria then cultured to start the process that turns the milk into cheese. Depending on the type of culture and the length of the aging process, the resulting cheese may form small, soft curds or it might be pressed into a hard block.
On their own, milk and most of the ingredients used to make cheese are gluten free. That being said, depending on the cultures used and any additives, the end product might not be. Keep reading to learn more about how cheese is made so that you can best understand which cheeses are gluten free versus which are not.
How is Cheese Made?
Cheddar, colby jack, swiss, and brie… These are just a few of the many different cheeses out there. All you have to do is take a stroll down the dairy aisle at your local grocery store to see that there are dozens of different types of cheese, each with numerous sub-varieties.
But how is cheese made, and does it contain gluten?
Cheese starts, quite simply, with milk. Most cheeses you are familiar with are made from cow’s milk, but other varieties like feta come from goat’s or sheep’s milk and buffalo mozzarella comes, predictably, from buffalo milk. The milk is generally first tested for quality and purity, then pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria. The manufacturer may also add more fat, cream, or protein to create a standardized base milk before continuing the process.
Once the base milk is ready, the starter cultures are added. Beneficial bacteria cultures facilitate the process of fermentation, which turns lactose, the natural sugar in the milk, into lactic acid. The type of culture and the fermentation process length determines the final flavor and texture of the cheese. It’s this process that leads to the many different varieties of cheeses we all know and love.
In addition to the starter culture, the manufacturer may add other ingredients like rennet or food coloring. Rennet is a milk-clotting enzyme that is used to coagulate the milk into a custard-like consistency. From there, the liquid (whey) is separated from the milk solids (curds) and cooked until the desired firmness is reached. Finally, the curds are pressed and aged before packaging.
Is All Cheese Gluten Free?
Dairy products made with all-natural ingredients generally don’t contain gluten. Of course, always look for the “certified gluten free” label to be sure. It is important to realize, however, that gluten is sometimes added during the manufacturing process for certain types of cheeses and dairy products.
Plain and full-fat cheeses are most likely to be gluten free, while cheese that contains add-ins as well as low-fat, low-salt, and fat-free cheese are more likely to contain gluten. Gluten-containing ingredients are often used as thickeners in certain types of cheese or as a stabilizer to increase the shelf life. Some ingredients that may indicate gluten on a food label include hydrolyzed wheat protein, malt, food starch, powdered cellulose, artificial flavor, fillers, emulsifiers, and spice blends.
Here is an overview of some of the most popular types of gluten free cheese you’re likely to find in the supermarket:
- Cream cheese
- Goat cheese
As always, you should check the ingredient label before eating any kind of processed food. The following cheeses have the highest risk for containing gluten, so make sure to triple-check these varieties before eating:
- American cheese
- Blue cheese
- Cheese spray or spread
- Cottage cheese
- Dairy-free cheese
- Powdered cheese
- Ricotta cheese
- Shredded cheese
- String cheese
- Queso cheese dip
Even if a cheese doesn’t contain any sources of gluten on the ingredients list, you still need to be careful. Gluten free cheese can become contaminated by products containing gluten at any point during the manufacturing process. This can happen at the farm, in the factory, during packaging or transport, in restaurants, or in the grocery store at the deli counter. Remember to check the label and look for an FDA or certified gluten free label to indicate less than 20 ppm gluten in the final product.
A Note About Lactose Intolerance
Though many types of cheese are gluten free, people with celiac disease may still have trouble digesting them. Celiac disease and lactose intolerance sometimes occur together because the immune reaction that damages the villi lining the small intestine also damage the lactase enzymes which help the body digest lactose. Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
- Abdominal pain
A long-term gluten free diet gives the small intestine time to heal and may eventually resolve symptoms of lactose intolerance, but there are no guarantees.
Gluten Free Tips for Enjoying Cheese
Now that you have a better understanding of how cheese is made and which types are gluten free, you’re ready to start enjoying it! Here are some simple gluten free cooking tips using cheese:
- Always check and double-check the label, just to be sure a product doesn’t contain gluten.
- Look for the words “all-natural” on the label to reduce the likelihood of additives.
- Be mindful of using shredded cheese, as some contains starch to separate the shreds.
- Double-check the label for dairy-free cheeses as well as cheese spreads and powders.
- Take precautions against cross-contamination when eating cheese-containing dishes out.
If you also follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, you may find yourself using more dairy-free cheese alternatives. Many are gluten free, but it never hurts to double-check.
Delicious Gluten Free Recipes Featuring Cheese
Now that you have the go-ahead to enjoy cheese on the gluten free diet, you’re probably excited to dig in! Here are two simple cheesy recipes using types of cheese that are most likely to be gluten free:
Artisan Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 small yellow onions, sliced thin
- Salt and pepper
- 2 teaspoons fresh chopped rosemary
- 1 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Schar Artisan Baker Gluten Free Bread
- Mayonnaise, as needed
- 12 ounces shredded cheddar cheese (gluten free)
- 6 ounces shredded Swiss cheese (gluten free)
- Melt half the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat then add the onions.
- Season with salt and pepper then add the rosemary and thyme.
- Cook for 8 to 10 minutes until softened, stirring often, then stir in the sugar.
- Let cook 1 minute more then transfer the onions to a plate.
- Add the remaining butter to the skillet and let it melt, swirling to coat the bottom.
- Spread some mayonnaise on one side of two slices of bread then add to the skillet, mayonnaise-side down.
- Sprinkle some cheese on top of each slice of bread and cook until the bread is browned, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- When the cheese starts to melt, spoon some onions over it and top with another slice of bread.
- Flip the sandwich and cook until the bread is toasted then remove to a plate.
- Repeat with the remaining ingredients then slice the sandwiches in half to serve.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- 2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk (gluten free)
- 2 large eggs
- ½ tablespoon dry mustard powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
- 1 (12-ounce) box Schar Gluten Free Fusilli Pasta
- 1 stick butter, softened or melted
- 2 cups chopped/shredded cheddar cheese (gluten free)
- 2 cups chopped Velveeta cheese
- 1 cup shredded parmesan cheese (gluten free)
- ½ cup gluten free breadcrumbs
- Preheat the oven to 400°F and lightly grease a 9x13-inch baking dish.
- Whisk together the evaporated milk, eggs, mustard powder, salt, and pepper until well combined.
- Boil the pasta to al dente according to the directions on the box then drain.
- Return the drained pasta to the pot and add the butter – stir until the butter is melted.
- Stir in the milk mixture and half the cheese, stirring over medium heat until the cheese is completely melted.
- Add the remaining cheese and stir until melted then spread in the prepared dish.
- Sprinkle with gluten-free breadcrumbs and drizzle with melted butter.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until hot and bubbling. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
As long as you’re being careful, the gluten free diet doesn’t have to be restrictive – you can still enjoy delicious foods like cheese! Just be sure to check and double-check food labels and follow basic precautions to prevent cross-contamination.