Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. It binds starches together and makes dough doughy.
Many people do not have the enzymes to digest gluten. If you regularly feel bloated and gassy, or suffer from cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, or migraines after a gluten-rich meal (like bread, cereal, pasta, pizza, and pastries), you may have celiac disease. Celiac is the most serious form of gluten sensitivity; it affects about 1 in 100 people.
However, there are many many more who have gluten sensitivity but don’t have the long-term and ongoing damage to the villi of the small intestine that people with celiac disease have. As a result, they may not even know that gluten is making them sick!
Gluten sensitivity has been linked to a multitude of ailments, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, dementia, seizures, intestinal disorders, skin problems, autoimmune diseases, adrenal exhaustion, and many more. For people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, the only treatment is to stay away from gluten for life.
Eating gluten free is not as difficult as it sounds; well-prepared gluten free foods can be as tasty as or even tastier than regular foods. There are many gluten free cookbooks on the market, some are better than others. For example, Against All Grain by Danielle Walker is a fabulous one. Not only is it gluten and dairy free, it is also suitable for diabetics. Depending on where you live, some of the ingredients for gluten free cooking may be harder to find in a regular grocery market, hence, it is recommended that you purchase them online.
Having said that, the awareness in the food industry is also exploding. It is now much easier to find food products labelled “gluten free” in grocery markets and many restaurants have started to provide “gluten free” menus.
What follows is a guide for identifying foods that are likely to contain gluten and foods that do not. The last section discusses strategies when eating out in various types of restaurants.
Foods With Gluten
- All breads, cakes, pies, cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals, croutons, pastas, and pizzas.
- Any of these gluten containing grains – barley, farro, kamut, oats, rye, spelt, triticale, and wheat.
- Couscous, semolina, and orzo.
- Graham flour and durum flour
- Malt (made from barley) including malt extract, malt flavoring, malt syrup, and malt vinegar. Watch out for chocolates, carobs, and candies which often contain malt.
- Licorice, all kinds.
- Anything breaded or floured is likely to have flour, hence, gluten.
- Thickened soups and sauces are usually made with flour. Sometimes, they can be thickened with butter and cream or cornstarch which have no gluten.
- Soy sauce and teriyaki sauce
- Ketchup, mustard, and relish may contain gluten.
- Dry mustard powder and curry powder
- Brewer’s yeast
- Canned baked beans may contain additives with gluten
- Sweetened yogurt may have gluten-containing additives. Check ingredients.
- Distilled vinegar made from malt. Distillation is supposed to remove all gluten proteins but it can still be problematic for those who are super sensitive. In the U.S., most distilled vinegar is made from corn which is gluten free.
- Pickles made with non-distilled vinegar
- Flavored vinegars may contain additives with gluten
- Pre-made sauces, marinades, BBQ sauce, and salad dressings may contain gluten.
- Seasoning mixes, such as taco mixes usually have gluten.
- Seitan, or “fake” meat products used by vegetarians and vegans to add protein to their diet is actually pure gluten which gives these products their chewy, meat-like texture.
- Blue cheese
- Processed cheese and vegan cheese may have gluten-containing additives
- Processed meats such as sausages, hot dogs, and deli meats often use gluten as a filler and thickener.
- Self-basting turkey
- Meatballs and meatloaf are usually made with breadcrumbs
- Imitation crab meat
- Meat jerky often has soy sauce and BBQ sauce that contain gluten.
- Additives like modified wheat starch, wheat starch, hydrolyzed wheat protein.
- Beer is usually fermented from barley or wheat
- Some medications may have gluten ingredients
- Communion wafers
Foods Without Gluten
- Meats and seafood
- Milk, butter, real cheese, and plain yogurt (the unsweetened kind).
- Vegetables, fresh, frozen and canned.
- Fats and oils
- Nuts and seeds, both raw and roasted, as well as nut butters and flours made from them.
- Beans and legumes, and flours made from them. Soybean has no gluten although unfermented soy products are not good for you.
- Coconut in all forms, including desiccated, juice, milk, cream, oil, nectar, and flour.
- Corn in all forms, including flour, meal, and grits.
- Rice, all types including white, brown, red, black, and basmati. Rice flour and rice noodles are often gluten free, however, watch out for some fresh rice noodles from Asian markets that may have wheat starch added to it.
- Oats labeled gluten free
- Other gluten free grains such as amaranth, buckwheat (kasha), millet, quinoa, teff, and sorghum.
- Distilled vinegar (usually made from corn), apple cider vinegar, wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and rice vinegar.
- Gluten free beers brewed with sorghum, buckwheat, quinoa, or other gluten free grains. Some gluten free beers (such as Omission) brews with barley but removes the gluten during the brewing process. This brings the gluten content to a level low enough for gluten-free classification, however, the beer still contains minute amounts of gluten and can be problematic for certain people who are super sensitive.
- Distilled alcoholic beverages are usually considered gluten free because distillation effectively removes all gluten
- Pure spices
- Gluten free soy sauce or tamari
- Ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sorbet. Most have no gluten but check ingredients carefully.
- Additives including annatto, arrowroot, caramel color, citric, lactic, and malic acids, cornstarch, dextrin, dextrose, food starch, glucose syrup, guar, lactose, lecithin, maltodextrin, modified food starch, oat gum, potato flour, potato starch, silicon dioxide, sucrose, tapioca flour, tapioca starch, vanilla, and xanthan gum have no gluten.
Eating Out In Restaurants
Although an increasing number of restaurants are offering “gluten free” menus, it can still be a challenge when eating out. The following are some guidelines when eating out at different types of restaurants:
American and Italian
- Anything grilled, broiled, steamed, and poached are usually safe.
- Panfried, breaded, crusted, braised, and deep fried items often have a flour coating. Always verify with the kitchen before ordering.
- Beware of thickened soups and sauces as they can be thickened with flour. If they are thickened with only butter, cream, or cheese, they have no gluten.
- White wine sauce can be gluten free if no flour is added. Verify with the kitchen.
- Tomato-based sauces usually do not have gluten
- Some restaurants mix a little pancake mix into scrambled eggs and omelets to make them fluffier. Verify with the kitchen.
- Mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, and french fries (from contamination of frying oil) may contain flour. Verify with the kitchen. Roasted potatoes are generally safe.
- Stuffings often have breadcrumbs in them, so do crab cakes.
- Ketchup, mustard, and relish may contain gluten.
- Salad dressings may contain gluten. If in doubt, ask for extra virgin olive oil with balsamic or red wine vinegar instead. Emphasize no croutons.
- Avoid all breads, pastas, pizzas, and gluten-containing grains. Since many restaurants now offer gluten free menus, check to see if they offer gluten free breads, pastas, and pizzas.
- Most desserts are made with flour except flourless cakes, creme brûlée, ice cream, and sorbet. Verify with kitchen that they are gluten free.
This is probably the most challenging among all the different types of restaurants as most foods contain soy sauce. Focus on items that have light sauces.
- Shrimp or lobster Cantonese
- Scrambled eggs with seafood
- Steamed chicken and fish, without soy sauce.
- Any clear soup is safe. Hot and sour soup is not.
- Stir-fried vegetables with garlic is safe. Specify no soy sauce or oyster sauce.
- Fried rice is safe if no soy sauce is used
- Roast duck, soy sauce chicken, and BBQ pork are usually marinated with soy sauce.
- Sweet and sour sauce usually contains soy sauce.
- Curries in Chinese restaurant are either thickened with flour or corn starch (gluten free). Verify with the kitchen.
- Watch out for salad dressings made with soy sauce
- All egg rolls, dumplings, potstickers, and noodles contain gluten, with the exception of rice noodles. However, they are usually prepared with soy sauce except those that are served in a broth.
Like Chinese food, most Japanese dishes use soy sauce for flavoring. Sashimi and sushi are your safest bets. Bring along some gluten free soy sauce if you plan to go to a Japanese restaurant.
- All salt grilled (shioyaki) dishes do not use soy sauce
- Yosenabe is a dish with meats, seafood, and vegetables cooked in a clear broth. Usually it comes with a glass noodle which is gluten free.
- Miso soup has no gluten
- Watch out for salad dressings made with soy sauce
- No teriyaki, tempura, donburi, sukiyaki, udon, or soba noodles (most have wheat flour mixed in with the buckwheat).
- Tortilla chips can be made from flour or corn. If it is 100% corn, it is safe, flour is not. Verify with the kitchen.
- The same applies to tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. If the restaurant does not provide corn tortillas, skip the tortilla and ask for a platter with meat, vegetables, beans, and rice instead.
- Salsa and guacamole have no gluten
- Fajitas are generally gluten free, however, verify with the kitchen that the seasonings are also gluten free.
- Sometimes, the sauces may be thickened with flour. Verify with the kitchen.
Thai and Vietnamese
Both Thai and Vietnamese use a lot of fish sauce (gluten free) in their cooking, however, on the safe side, always verify with the kitchen. Many times, when requested, the chef will omit the soy sauce and substitute with fish sauce instead.
- Thai and Vietnamese salads are generally safe as the dressings are often made with fish sauce.
- Fresh spring rolls are made with rice flour, egg rolls with wheat flour. Verify with the kitchen that the dipping sauce is free of soy sauce.
- Peanut sauce often contains soy sauce
- Thai curries are usually thickened with coconut milk with no flour added.
- Rice noodles are gluten free. In Thai restaurants, Pad Thai is often made with fish sauce but the other rice noodle dishes with soy sauce. In Vietnamese restaurants, the rice noodle soups (pho) are usually safe.
- Stir fried dishes generally use soy sauce. Ask if it is possible to substitute with fish sauce.
- Watch out for deep fried items as they may be coated with flour.
If you are super sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease, you need to watch out for cross contamination in the kitchen both at home and at restaurants – that means shared cutting boards, knives, toasters, waffle grills, pizza ovens, frying oil, water for cooking pasta, and baking sheets.
Wheat flour can remain in the air for up to 24 hours and a few crumbs are enough to cause a reaction for some people. Keep in mind that wooden cutting boards are porous and gluten can get trapped in them. You can try to use a marble cutting board instead.
When eating out, do your homework. Choose restaurants that are more likely to be naturally gluten free. If half the menu is breaded or crumbed, you may want to try somewhere else.
Some restaurants take cross contamination more seriously than others. California Pizza Kitchen is one chain that has removed all wheat flour from its pizza prep stations and replaced it with rice flour, hence, alleviating the risk of airborne gluten. Their pizza doughs are individually wrapped in plastic and baked in separate pizza pans. Gluten free topping ingredients are kept within designated areas in containers with colored lids. Managers and staff members have been trained to put on special gloves to handle gluten free orders. They have gluten free pans as well as cutting boards and wheels to prepare gluten free pizzas.
Apart from CPK, there are an increasing number of restaurants offering gluten free menus. However, if you are among those who are super sensitive to gluten, you need to research their practices regarding cross contamination.