Ensuring that a menu-item is gluten-free starts with getting the right ingredients.

“There has to be an emphasis on gluten-free ingredients as a foundation,” said dietician Lauren Rezende, a quality assurance manager for Healthy Dining. The San Diego-based company helps restaurants with nutrition-related services, including gluten identification.

Here are some tips for identifying and sourcing gluten-free items.

1. Check the label. All packaged foods labeled gluten-free must meet the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration’s gluten-free labeling final rule as of Aug. 5, 2014. The final rule establishes a standard definition of gluten-free to help consumers with celiac disease avoid gluten.

The rule also requires packaged foods with the claims “no gluten,” “free of gluten” and “without gluten” to meet the definition for “gluten-free.” (Note that products labeled prior to Aug. 5, 2014, weren’t required to comply with the rule.)

Some manufacturers also certify their products as gluten-free through organizations such as the Gluten-Free Certification Program, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization or Quality Assurance International/NSF International. All require certified products to have less than 10 parts per million of gluten, and the Celiac Support Association requires less than 5 ppm. The FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule sets the threshold at 20 ppm.

2. Request gluten-free verification. Checking labels is a great first step, but you’ll often need to look beyond that. Just because the label doesn’t specify the item is gluten-free doesn’t mean it isn’t. In fact, many items are inherently gluten-free, like produce and meat, but aren’t labeled so. Gluten-free labeling is voluntary, according to the FDA’s gluten-free labeling final rule.

Manufacturers also don’t have to indicate whether an item contains gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The Food Allergy Labeling Consumer Protection Act requires only wheat be identified because it’s a common allergen.

“If you’re just looking for wheat in an allergen statement or as an ingredient on a label, you’re potentially missing hidden sources of gluten, most likely derived from barley,” said Beckee Moreland, director of the Gluten-Free Resource Education and Awareness Training Kitchens program of Beyond Celiac, formerly the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

The safest approach is to ask your supplier to verify an item is gluten-free because many gluten sources aren’t readily identified in the ingredient list. Beware of vague ingredient descriptions like “flavorings.”

“When in doubt, it’s always best to contact the manufacturer or vendor to get more information,” Rezende said. Request a written statement that verifies ingredients are gluten-free, or ask for a certificate of analysis, she recommends. 

3. Partner with your suppliers. Make sure your distributors understand your commitment to offering gluten-free dishes, so they can help identify appropriate products. “There are so many gluten-free options available today that vendors can help you swap out items easily,” Rezende said. Gluten-free salad dressings and marinades are examples.

Ask to be informed whenever a product is modified, and request written reconfirmation at least quarterly, Rezende recommends. Those updates are essential not just for gluten identification but also for nutrition information and allergen concerns. “For the safety of your customers, you need to make sure that all the information you’re providing on site and on your website is up to date,” Rezende said.

4. Limit substitutions. Although one brand of soy sauce might be gluten-free, that doesn’t mean another is. Problems can occur when a distributor temporarily runs out of the carefully selected gluten-free sauce and makes a last-minute substitution to a non-gluten-free brand. “We recommend that operators request that no substitutions be made without notice,” Moreland said.

5. Institute proper receiving protocols. Empower your receiving employees to take their work seriously. If they mistakenly accept an incorrect product, it could potentially endanger your guests’ health. “Those who receive shipments should be educated to recognize gluten-free products and ingredients,” said Moreland.

Establish and adhere to receiving procedures that prevent gluten-containing ingredients and allergens from making their way into dishes. Closely monitor what you order versus what you receive. For allergens training, check out ServSafe Allergens.