Home Living Gluten-FreeEveryday GF Life Reading Food Labels: What “May Contain vs. Contains Means”

Reading Food Labels: What “May Contain vs. Contains Means”

by Elyse the Gluten-Free Foodee
Reading Food Labels: What “May Contain vs. Contains Means”

This content is meant for informational purpose only. We do not provide specific nutritional or medical advice and always recommend you consult a healthcare professional for any symptoms or illnesses you may be experiencing.

People turn to a gluten-free diet for many different reasons. Some do so because they have Celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder triggered when gluten is ingested. Others, like myself, do so because they have non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. For me, living a gluten-free lifestyle, helps control my issues with chronic pain and inflammation. And others turn to a gluten-free diet as they are looking for a healthier way to eat.

Adapting to a gluten-free diet can be a daunting – but doable – challenge. One of the most important tips for going gluten-free is reading food labels to determine if the ingredients contain any alternative sources of wheat. You may also notice, some food labels will use the terms “may contain” and “contains” and today we are going to delve into what these terms mean for you, my fellow gluten-free foodees.


For a product to be considered gluten-free, it must not have intentional sources of gluten added to it, and any cross-contamination must be less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. This is an internationally recognized standard.

Reading Food Labels: What Does Contains Mean?

I know this is probably very obvious, but it means that an allergen is present in the product. Below the ingredient list, is where you’ll see the “contains” label. It will list which major allergens are present like soy or wheat or dairy or peanuts, etc. You’re probably thinking, but couldn’t I just read the label and find out that there is wheat in the product? Yes, but sometimes wheat and its derivatives (other gluten products) are labeled under other names you may not be familiar with, or they are not easily recognizable.

The contains list is there to make reading food labels easier for people who have to avoid allergens. If you see “contains: wheat” after the ingredients you know you don’t have to spend any more time reading the label. You know it contains gluten so no need to Google unknown words. Basically, this saves you a lot of time and hassle when shopping for food and keeps you safe from allergens.

What Does May Contain Mean?

Basically, it means that an allergen MAY be present in this product. The manufacturer can’t guarantee that it isn’t present, even though the allergen is not listed in the ingredients. The manufacturer wants to voluntarily let the consumer know that they do not have a dedicated gluten-free facility for producing the product. Thus, “may contain” labels boils down to cross-contamination potential. The product was either made in a facility that also makes products containing wheat, or that equipment and/or employees are used to produce both wheat and gluten-free products.

It is a warning that there could be trace amounts of that allergen present in the product and it is probably more than 20ppm. An example could be a bag of rice that says “may contain wheat” on the label. Now, rice is inherently gluten-free, but depending on how and where it is produced, there is a possibility for cross-contamination. This could be true of any product from frozen fruit/vegetables to beans or corn meal. This is why you must always read the labels, on almost every product.

Gluten-Free Tip:

You can always call the manufacturer and ask about the product, to find out why it would contain wheat/gluten. Sometimes knowing what the risk of cross-contamination is, can help you make an informed decision.

For me, as someone with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, my registered dietitian told me that I am generally OK with eating a “may contain” product because the amount is small. On that advice, I’ve tried “may contain” products and found they don’t trigger me personally. Now, I found if I eat something like oatmeal (more on that later) too often, then I will have a reaction. A single portion once every few weeks is fine for me though. Those who are Celiac or are very sensitive should definitely stay away from “may contain” products, as that trace amount could be triggering.

Here is a link to The Canadian Celiac Association page on Labelling: Guidelines for Individuals with Celiac Disease Following a Gluten-Free Diet

What’s The Deal With Oats?

Oats are inherently gluten-free. However, when oats are processed they are often processed using the same equipment/lines/machinery/factory as wheat. So with oats, there is a high chance of cross-contamination. If you are Celiac or particularly sensitive to trace amounts of gluten, you should only purchase certified gluten-free oats or products containing certified gluten-free oats.

Reading food labels can be very confusing especially when you first change your diet. However, much like with anything else, it gets easier with time and familiarity. So you’ll be quickly evaluating products and scanning labels like a pro in no time.

Please leave us a comment below if you have any label reading or other gluten-free living tips of your own to share – we’d love to hear them.

Sharing information, especially with such an important subject as gluten-free cross-contamination and labeling, keeps us all safer.

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PLEASE NOTE: If your question/comment pertains to your health, please understand we are not qualified to provide that advice. If you are feeling unwell, we recommend you seek medical assistance ASAP. If your question/comment is related to a post or living your best gluten-free life (recipe, tips, reviews, etc), we got you covered :)


Sue Newell September 17, 2021 - 7:06 am

The problem with gluten contamination of oats goes further back than just processing. Oats are often grown in fields that previously grew wheat. That means that there will be wheat mixed in with the oats for several years thanks to “volunteer” wheat – plants that grew from seeds that fell in the fields during harvest. There is also possible contamination from the machinery used for harvest and the trucks and trains used to carry the crops to processors. Purity protocol GF oat processors set up requirements for their suppliers to control those risks.

Elyse the Gluten-Free Foodee September 17, 2021 - 5:51 pm

Excellent point about being grown near each other. Happy you agree with what I said about machinery. Thanks for commenting, it’s great to learn and grow together.


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