Got Gluten? 15 Foods to Avoid on a Gluten-Free Diet
- Jacqueline Raposo
- 3 Min Read
You eat the quinoa but refuse the couscous. You nosh the french fries but pass the pasta. You know exactly which foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet. Then you realize vinegar chips are doused with barley malt (glutened!). Or learn your gluten-free pizza joint doesn’t use a dedicated gluten-free oven (cross-contaminated!).
For those with Celiac disease and gluten intolerance, navigating the minefield of safe foods takes constant vigilance. For those cooking or ordering catered gluten-free meals, the list of foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet may seem daunting.
To start: Gluten is a composite of proteins found in the grains wheat, barley, and rye, and wheat derivatives spelt, couscous, and kamut. Gluten-free grains like quinoa, flax, millet, sorghum, and buckwheat (such a deceiving name!) don’t contain these proteins. Nor do vegetables or meat. In a perfect world, gluten-free foods would simply not have these forbidden grains. But it’s not always easy to identify foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet. When age-old cooking techniques and modern food science combine, gluten pops up in too many unexpected places.
Here are fifteen unexpected foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet, and where the gluten’s hiding.
Gluten sneaks into food items by way of bulking and thickening agents, making your office pantry-items list the first place to look when checking foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet. Nowadays, certified gluten-free brands abound. But it’s safer to assume these items contain gluten than take that risk.
- Soy Sauce: Traditionally, soy sauce is made from soybeans that are steamed, fermented, and aged with wheat berries added for aroma and sweetness. Nowadays, most major brands also manufacture wheat-free soy sauce — tamari — using only soybeans, or adding rice for sweetness. But in general, soy sauce is a no-go.
- Salad Dressings: Dressings encompass several danger zones. They often contain “modified food starch” that binds ingredients together and keeps them creamy. Those starches can be made from corn, potatoes, or wheat — and manufacturers don’t specify. Rich balsamic vinegar may get its golden kick from caramel color derived from barley malt. And if a dressing uses malt vinegar itself, then gluten’s in the barley that makes the malt!
- Ground spice mixes: Gluten hides as an anti-caking agent in blends that mix many spices together like curry, cajun, and berbere blends. These extend shelf life, prevent sticking, and make them foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet.
- Pickles: Vegetables are gluten-free! But pickles?! Those require confirmation. Pickles brined in white vinegar are safe. But those brined in malt vinegar — made from malt alcohol which, again, is made from barley! — are off limits.
- Instant coffee: Instant coffee often contains gluten as a bulking agent. Powdered milk added to coffee mixes often contains wheat for bulking and anti-caking, too.
The Main Event
Whether from the pantry or the hands of a capable caterer, every ingredient begs for attention when it comes to main course foods to avoid on a gluten-free diet.
- Soups and stews: Soups and stews can contain wheat-based thickeners or a cooked down combo of butter and flour, which coat vegetables and protein and make everything all smooth and delicious. In chef lingo, the butter-flour combo is called a roux (pronounced roo). Feel free to lob this word at your caterer to confirm the gluten-free status of a menu. (But don’t expect to see it on a can.)
- Sauces: Same as above. Roux ruins everything.
- Oats: In their structural makeup, oats are gluten-free. But they’re easily contaminated if grown alongside wheat or, as Bon Appetit stresses, if processed on equipment also used to process wheat products. To keep your breakfast bar safe for all, look for oats with a “certified gluten-free” label. If preparing or ordering for anyone with severe Celiac disease, check in with their comfort level first, as even the safest brands pose a risk.
- Deli Meats: Ready-to-cook meats, hot dogs, and meatballs can contain those unsafe sauces or breadcrumbs. And cured meats can be brined in malt vinegar. By now, we know to hate that stuff.
- Potato Chips and French Fries: Would that these be made from nothing but potatoes, oil, and salt! But too often, chips and fries employ anti-caking agents or contain flavorings with gluten ingredients.
- Vegan meat replacements: Seitan is called “wheat-meat” or “braised gluten” as it’s made from wheat, barley, and rye! Tempeh is a compressed soybean patty often flavored with soy sauce (not the gluten-free kind). So while safe for vegetarians, don’t assume all with dietary restrictions will be well fed.
- Sushi: We’ve covered Battle Soy Sauce versus Tamari. And yes — the rice in sushi is gluten free! But imitation crab meat found in various rolls contains several kinds of seafood bound together with starches and flour. So consider bulking up on the sashimi.
The Sweet Stuff
You’ve made it this far! You deserve something sweet. But…
- Cocoa Mix: Just like that instant coffee up top, cocoa mix often hides flour. (Basically, if it looks like it could hide flour, question if it’s hiding flour.)
- Ice Cream: Some ice cream brands use wheat starch for texture consistency, barley malt for flavor, and gluten-containing artificial colors. Then there are mix-ins like cookies, sprinkles, candies, and cake batter to consider.
- Chocolate: Cocoa beans are gluten-free! Crispy bits, caramel coloring, and other things often added to chocolate bars are not. Cocoa beans can be processed on shared equipment, making some brands questionable for those with Celiac disease. And then there’s the cocoa powder anti-caking agent danger, too.
Armed and ready! Where will your gluten-free eating adventure take you next?