Sneaky Foods You Thought Were Gluten-Free (But Actually Aren’t!)

If you or someone you love has to eat gluten-free, bookmark this list of sneaky foods that contain gluten. (Psst: Most of them won't warn you on the label.)

Allergic food on a white wooden backgroundShutterstock / bitt24

Shutterstock / bitt24 

Going gluten-free should be easy. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. In theory, then, most foods are naturally gluten-free: meat, poultry, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, and dairy. (Psst: Did you know these supposedly healthy foods are actually really bad for you?)

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Gluten hides in lots of foods that seem innocent. If you’re avoiding gluten, always be sure to read the label and ask questions until you’re sure a food is safe. And if in doubt, best not to eat. (I know this is rough, but after being gluten-free for over eight years, I can promise it gets easier!)

Here’s a shortlist of sneaky gluten sources to be wary of:

Oats

While oats themselves are gluten-free, they’re very often cross-contaminated with gluten-containing grains during harvest, storage and processing. Though the gluten exposure may be minimal, it’s significant enough to cause discomfort for GF-folks.

What to look for instead: Oats specifically labeled “gluten-free,” which are carefully handled to prevent gluten contamination. Bob’s Red Mill and other brands carry gluten-free oats and oat flour.

Our top 10 gluten-free recipes are often better than their glutenous counterparts!

Granola Bars and Granola

If regular oats contain gluten, then it follows that granola and granola bars made with regular oats contain gluten. Many of these products also use wheat flour as a binding agent, or use wheat germ for added health benefits.

What to look for instead: Products labeled “gluten-free,” or grab another protein-packed snack, like nuts or yogurt. Or, make your own granola at home with GF oats.

Lunch Meat

Yep, sounds gross, but processed lunch meats can contain gluten. In addition to meat, they may contain “starch,” which acts as a binding agent and is usually derived from wheat. The meat may also have wheat-based flavorings, such as maltodextrin or malt flavorings. If a product contains wheat, manufacturers have to share that information on the label. (Though if your butcher is slicing the meat for you, you won’t see the package.) Barley ingredients, however, are not required to be explicitly noted on the label.

What to look for instead: Again, packages that affirm that they’re gluten-free, not just wheat-free. Better yet, roast a chicken or turkey breast yourself and avoid chemical fillers and processed foods entirely.

Eggs At Restaurants

Eggs are naturally gluten-free. Eggs cooked in a restaurant, however, are another story: According to Celiac.org, many restaurants add pancake mix to their scrambled eggs and omelets. This surprising (and sort of sneaky) practice underlines a major lesson of going gluten-free: You should always err on the safe side and ask whether something is gluten-free. Never assume!

What to look for instead: Order a fried or poached egg, and let your server know that you can’t eat gluten.

Tortilla Chips at Restaurants

I just love going out for Mexican food: the salt-rimmed margarita, the spicy dish of salsa, chunky guac, and a great big basket of fresh tortilla chips. Made from corn, they should be gluten-free….right? Wrong. Unfortunately, restaurants cook these chips in deep-fat fryers, which are often contaminated with flour. (Because cooks are also frying breaded or battered foods in the same oil.) Make sure to ask whether the restaurant uses a dedicated GF fryer.

What to look for instead: Ask for a side of warmed corn tortillas, which are pretty tasty torn and dipped into guac and salsa. Here’s how to make restaurant-quality guacamole at home.

Fast Food and Restaurant French Fries

Fries are made from potatoes, which are gluten-free. But they’re often sneakily gluten-ous. Many fries contain wheat or gluten ingredients, whether from flour coating the fry or filler ingredients or seasoning blends. McDonald’s, for instance, adds “Natural Beef Flavor,” which is made from wheat. Even if the fries themselves are gluten-free, they’re contaminated with gluten if they’re fried in a deep fat fryer that’s used to cook breaded or battered foods. Again, make sure to ask whether the restaurant uses a dedicated GF fryer.

What to look for instead: I’ll admit, skipping fries is a bummer, especially if you’re also having a bun-free burger. Most restaurants offer a GF side salad or fruit bowl. Baked or roasted potatoes are a more fun stand-in, especially as a vehicle for eating ketchup. If you’re getting take-out, plan ahead by bringing a GF alternative, like potato chips or corn chips (labeled GF, of course).

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is actually made in part from fermented wheat.

What to look for instead: Use tamari sauce. Many brands will call out that they’re GF on the label. If you’re going for Chinese food or sushi, you’ll need to avoid soy sauce. Some restaurants do offer GF alternatives—just ask!

Sour Cream

What? How in the world does wheat end up in a dairy product? While most regular sour creams are GF (though you should always check), “lite” sour creams often contain gluten in order to thicken it up. Look for “modified food starch” on the label: This is a red flag that a product contains gluten.

What to look for instead: Try swapping out Greek yogurt or creme fraiche.

Corn Flakes & Rice Krispies

With titles based around major gluten-free grains, you might assume that these cereals are safe. But major brands of these cereals contain barley ingredients for flavoring. Look for words like “malt” in the ingredients list; they’ll tip you off.

What to look for instead: Mainstream cereal brands such as Rice Chex and Cheerios have gluten-free friendly options.

Baked Goods and Foods Made in a Non-Gluten-Free Facility (Even Grandma’s House—Sob!)

I definitely salute the bakers and cooks who want to make gluten-free items available alongside their traditional gluten-containing baked goods. However, if they’re preparing GF items alongside gluten items, it’s almost certain they’re contaminating the GF items. Have you ever seen a bakery? Flour gets everywhere; it dusts the countertops, floors, mixers…everything. What’s more, porous wooden cooking items like countertops, spoons or cutting boards exposed to gluten will remain contaminated. (So don’t use Grandma’s old wooden spoon to stir your GF brownies!)

What to do instead: Before you eat, ask what steps are taken to avoid cross-contamination. Do they bake gluten-free items first? Do they have a dedicated gluten-free prep area? If a family member is making you something, have them use plastic or silicone tools instead of wood.

Sausages and Hot Dogs

Many sausages and dogs use wheat products for filler. Check the label (or ask the butcher to check for you).

What to look for instead: Try sauteing ground meat with savory seasonings like cumin if you can’t find a GF sausage at your grocery store.

Heritage or Ancient Grains

Many companies are trying to offer healthier alternatives to white flour goods like crackers and breads. Always make sure the grains they’re using are actually gluten-free. While some ancient grains are GF, others, like kamut, spelt, faro, einkorn and semolina, are actually just older forms of wheat.

What to look for instead: Check for GF ancient grains like millet, sorghum and teff.

Condiments and Salad Dressings

Many dressings, sauces, spreads and other condiments contain flour or sneaky gluten ingredients like malt vinegar, soy sauce or “modified food starch.”
What to look for instead: Try making an easy homemade vinaigrette or other homemade condiments. (Or just check for a GF label!)

Buckwheat Pancakes and Soba Noodles

Buckwheat, in spite of its name, is not a type of wheat. But pre-made buckwheat items, like breads, pancakes and soba noodles, are mixed with wheat flour.

What to look for instead: Buckwheat pancakes are easy to make at home yourself. Soba noodles, sadly, are tougher to replace. Get your buckwheat fix by cooking up some plain kasha.

Remember, when in doubt, always check the label. Find lots of allergy-friendly recipes over here.

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