Safe and Unsafe Grains and Flours

Learn your grains: the first step in cooking gluten-free

A rustic bowl of uncooked porridge oats (oatmeal)
J Shepherd/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Gluten is the catchall name for a protein that's found in wheat. Foods from rye bread to pasta have gluten content, as well as foods you wouldn't suspect, like some salad dressings or even your favorite beer. Gluten acts as a natural glue to hold certain foods together. 

Many people can consume gluten without any negative effects. Others are gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant. Their bodies go into attack mode when they eat anything containing gluten.

When gluten hits their digestive systems, their bodies suffer an abnormal immune reaction. Gluten-sensitive adults can experience bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea. They can have skin reactions or feel foggy and tired after eating.

About 18 million Americans are gluten-sensitive, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. One in every 100 Americans is gluten-intolerant -- they suffer from celiac disease and they endure worse physical reactions when gluten is ingested, including damage to the small intestine. 

Still, others simply choose to go gluten-free, although there's little scientific evidence to indicate that eliminating gluten from the diet promotes good health if you're not sensitive or intolerant to the protein. 

Whether you must eliminate gluten from your diet or if you just want to, figuring out what foods contain this protein can be a challenge. Sometimes it's obvious, but sometimes it's not.

Always read ingredients and labels to be sure if you're allergic to gluten, but this list can help you identify which grains and flours are dangerous and which can be perfectly safe. 

Unsafe Grains That Contain Gluten

  • Wheat: All varieties of wheat contain gluten, including spelt, durum, semolina, graham, faro, emmer, einkorn, triticale, and kamut. This includes whole grains, berries, germs, brans, flours, sprouted wheat and fermented wheat.
  • Barley: All varieties and forms of barley contain gluten, and barley can hide in some foods you wouldn't suspect, such as malt vinegars, malted milk drinks and candies, brown rice syrup made with rice malt, and beer.
  • Rye

Safe Gluten-Free Grains

Not all grains are automatically on the unsafe list simply because they're grains. These are some that you should be able to eat: 

  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Montina® (Indian Rice Grass)
  • Oats
  • Quinoa 
  • Rice flours: white, sweet or sushi, brown or wild 
  • Sorghum
  • Teff

The use of oats in gluten-free diets is controversial, however. The Gluten Intolerance Group, the Celiac Disease Foundation, and the Canadian Celiac Association all approve the use of moderate amounts of gluten-free oats. Other organizations, including the Celiac Sprue Association, recommend that oats be avoided.

Safe Gluten-Free Bean Flours

Some bean flours are also considered safe. They include: 

  • Fava bean
  • Garbanzo (chickpea
  • Garfava (a combination of garbanzo and fava bean flours)
  • Pea
  • Romano (cranberry)
  • Soy

Sometimes garbanzo or chickpea flour is called "gram" flour. This shouldn't be confused with "graham" flour, which comes from wheat.

Safe Gluten-Free Nut Flours

Nut flours that are not known to contain gluten include: 

  • Almond
  • Chestnut
  • Coconut
  • Hazelnut
  • Pecan

Safe Gluten-Free Root Vegetable Starches

Some root vegetable starches are also safe. They include: 

  • Arrowroot
  • Potato Starch
  • Potato Flour
  • Tapioca