Have you ever ordered food at a restaurant and gotten sick afterward? Maybe you even told the waitstaff you were gluten-free. And maybe what you ordered was marked as gluten-free OR it was on the gluten-free menu. Either way, you know that you just found some hidden gluten in restaurant food. It’s happened to us all. You might not truly know what it was that made you sick, but you know that something in that meal made you sick.
Now I could certainly go on and on about the inherent issues presented with the goofy labeling the restaurant industry uses to skirt the FDA gluten-free labeling decision and why so many restaurants have stopped using the phrase gluten free to even describe their menu, but I won’t. You can read more about that here. And I’m not going to go into issues of cross contamination nor gluten free restaurant certification because that’s a topic for another time.
What I am going to share with you is a list of items most of which I’ve never see listed on other articles pointing out where gluten hides in restaurant food. As both a coach and advocate, I wanted to make sure that you (and everyone you know who’s gluten free) doesn’t get glutened from these sources of hidden gluten in restaurant food. I’ve encountered each one of these spots personally at restaurants, so this isn’t a list I conjured up just to shock you. Though I will say that each time I encountered one of these on the list, I was surprised because I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that gluten would be hiding there.
If you seem to be getting sick a lot from eating out, you may need to be clearer in how you explain that you’re gluten-free, only go to restaurants that take gluten-free seriously, or you might need to start asking more questions on how the meal is prepared. Because I didn’t want to get sick from getting glutened while eating out (and it rarely ever happens now), I take the process more seriously in the past five years of locating a safe restaurant, announcing my food sensitivities, and asking questions.
Newbies to the gluten free lifestyle often find that hidden gluten is one of the biggest factors keeping them from staying compliant on the diet and from fully feeling better. (Need more help with that? Check this out!)
10 Surprising Spots for Hidden Gluten in Restaurant Food
1. Stir-fried noodle dishes at Thai restaurants
Love Thai food? Me too. I found out the hard way that pad thai and other stir-fried noodle dishes tend to include soy sauce (which if you’re not aware naturally contains wheat). While you might not necessarily associate soy sauce with Thai food, it’s used in a number of dishes. I’ve found that curry dishes tend to be safe, but ask if the meat was marinated ahead of time (and if so, in what) if it’s not already described as such on the menu. Some restaurants might allow you to bring your own gluten free tamari sauce, but I’ve never truly felt comfortable doing so if an entire meal depends on this ingredient. If and when I eat Thai, I make sure to always question the use of soy sauce.
FYI — Another type of soy sauce I’ve seen used at organic and vegan restaurants is shoyu that also contains wheat.
While you’d think that enchiladas should be gluten free, they probably aren’t unless you inquire about the ingredients and sauces used. I’ve found on a number of occasions that the rojo sauce is not gluten-free. And I’ve also noticed mexican restaurants that label their gluten free dishes as such rarely include enchiladas. My suggestion would be to stick with a burrito bowl (essentially the inside of a burrito), tacos, flautas or sopas after checking that they use corn masa or tortillas.
3. Balsamic vinaigrette
More bad news involving soy sauce… some restaurants that make up their own balsamic vinaigrette will include soy sauce as a flavor enhancer. For me to even consider agreeing to a balsamic vinaigrette, I’d need to know exactly what’s in it. Otherwise I suggest sticking with a red wine and olive oil dressing or something else that the restaurant can assure you is gluten-free.
4. Scrambled eggs & omelets
While I don’t eat eggs, my husband does and he’s been eating gluten free to see if it would help alleviate issues with migraines. Some restaurants add pancake batter to their scrambled eggs and omelets to make them fluffier. IHOP is notorious for doing this. If you’re not ordering hard-boiled eggs, poached eggs, or fried eggs, you’ve got to ask if batter or any wheat has been added to the egg dish.
5. Meatballs, hamburgers, and fresh cuts of meat
If you don’t make meatballs, you might not realize that breadcrumbs are typically added. Fresh cuts of meat can be a hidden source of gluten because the meat may be dredged in flour before being cooked. Make sure to specifically inform the waiter to tell the chef that the meat should not be dredged and that the grill should be cleaned before your piece of meat is placed on it to cook.
And some hamburgers could be marinated so please double check on that. If they are, always inquire about the marinade. As a general rule of thumb, unless I’m at a 100% gluten free restaurant or a restaurant that truly takes gluten free seriously, I avoid all meats that have been marinated.
6. Meat marinated in beer
While I just touched on the marinade issue, some restaurants (my experience has been with Mexican-style restaurants) will marinade their meat in beer like Dos Equis or Corona. It might not even be mentioned on the menu for that particular item. If the beer isn’t gluten free, then the subsequent food marinated in it isn’t gluten free either. This again underscores why I say to inquire if the meat is marinated and to know what the marinade is or avoid it altogether.
7. Fried gluten free food
I don’t care if the menu clearly says that their chicken nuggets, breaded shrimp, or anything else that you know was cooked in a fryer is gluten free. It might be gluten free before it went in the fryer, but if that fryer is used to cook other items that do contain gluten, your food is contaminated once it enters the oil. I don’t care what the restaurant tells you about the food being fine and that “no one has complained about it before.” The food isn’t gluten free, period.
A fryer doesn’t get hot enough to degrade gluten proteins. You can read more about what’s required to degrade gluten during cooking here. Unless the restaurant has a designated gluten free fryer (which some restaurants do), fried foods are typically off limits. If you see “gluten free chicken fingers” or anything else like that on the menu, your first question should be if they have a dedicated fryer.
Another note about everyone’s favorite fried side dish — french fries. I’ve actually dedicated an entire article to whether french fries are gluten free here (believe it or not, and it’s consistently one of the most viewed articles every month). Long story short? If they aren’t actual potato slices, then most likely they aren’t gluten free and very rarely will you find sweet potato fries that are gluten free either.
8. Tortilla chips
I decided to split tortilla chips off into their own bullet point because they could have gluten hidden in them for two different reasons. The first would have to do with the issue I just made regarding shared fryers. The second, less obvious reason is that they may contain wheat. While tortilla chips are traditionally made from corn, some restaurants serve chips that mix corn and wheat. Before you dive into that big dish of crispy chips, you’ve got to ask if they are gluten free first.
Just a side note, this warning also applies to bagged tortilla chips available at the grocery store. Some chips are marketed as “multi-grain” chips because they have more than corn in them and typically the blend includes wheat.
9. Gluten free pasta dishes
If you’re scratching your head at this one, allow me to explain. Efficiency is pretty important in the restaurant industry, so things like boiling water can be reused to cook multiple orders of pasta. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Similar to what I mentioned about the shared fryer, it’s very important to the wait staff and thus the chef that they cannot cook your gluten free pasta in water being used to cook normal pasta. They must use a freshly cleaned pot with clean water.
And you should always inquire about the sauce used because sometimes wheat is used as a thickener in marinara and other tomato-based sauces.
You might know to avoid soy sauce (yes, I know… here it is again!) at the table as well as anything labeled as tempura (which means it was battered with wheat flour/egg mixture and then fried). But what you might not realize is that some restaurants add soy sauce or a cheap grain-based vinegar (that contains gluten) to their sushi rice as it cooks. Imitation crab is also not gluten free. I’ve previously written about this here along with my favorite gluten free avocado sushi recipe that I made at home.
NEED MORE HELP?
If you feel like you’re at your wits’ end and fed up knowing what to eat…
Or you feel like food is your enemy now that you’ve gone gluten-free because you don’t know what’s safe…
And you’re feeling deeply overwhelmed with the process of ridding your life of gluten…
I have a really neat opportunity for you so keep on reading!
I’m hosting a special webinar (that’s totally free) where I’m going to talk about the process how to simplify going gluten-free as well as how I (and my clients) have gotten to a place where the lifestyle and diet are a piece of gluten-free cake.
If you’ve been GF for less than 2 years, are still struggling to “stay on the wagon,” or haven’t even started going GF yet… this is for you.
Today and tomorrow, I’m hosting an exclusive webinar called…
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Alright, now it’s your turn. Leave a comment below sharing the most surprising (or even shocking) place you discovered gluten while out to eat to help others in our community spot the hidden gluten in restaurant meals!
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After informing the wait staff that I needed to be gluten free, I was assured the miso soup was “safe”. It wasn’t. When I checked the internet about miso, I discovered many restaurants use soy in it and sometimes other “nonsafe” ingredients. Lesson learned. Price, two days of discomfort.
Connie, Did you mean that there was soy sauce in the tofu?
Some miso pastes have barley in them. This could also be the source of gluten.
WOW thought I could eat rice with my sushi. I don’t have an issue with rice but I guess I cannot eat this anymore what a surprise to me. Thanks.
Some places cook their rice with a dashi(stock) which can contain gluten. I always ask if the rice is cooked with just water, or with a dashi.
Great article! Another surprising place for gluten can be in ice cream. You might think you are safe if you get it in a bowl, avoid toppings, and obviously stay away from flavors with cookies. But, some plain ice creams contain wheat in the ingredients – depends on the brand. Crazy, right?
Yep, Joanna! Good call. Can’t assume ice cream is safe on a menu… you’ve got to check. And you’re right on about toppings. Even jimmies or sprinkles aren’t normally gluten-free.
The last time I went out for sushi, I asked if they had gluten free soy sauce. Surprisingly they did, although I had brought my own just in case. But the server was kind enough and wise enough to steer me away from the typical ginger salad dressing stating that it did contain gluten. I was grateful and told him so, and enjoyed my meal without any repercussions.
And thank you for sharing your knowledge and findings!
You’re super welcome, Pat. Yep, I found that out the hard way. I was ordering a salad with ginger dressing and for over a year was told it was safe and made without soy sauce. And then I stopped going to the one restaurant for many months only to return for dinner and be told that it was never safe.
Cheese dip. There’s freaking gluten in cheese dip at many Mexican or cantina type places. Apparently flour is often used as a thickener in cheese dip.
Wow, Jessica! I never order that so I’d never guess that! Thank you for sharing!!!!
Yes! Most restaurants buy their shredded cheese in bulk and suppliers add flour to keep the cheese from clumping!
Shoyu is the same thing as soy sauce. It’s just the Japanese name. Tamari is a type of shoyu. Tamari can contain wheat, but traditionally shouldn’t.
Also, many places which serve a lot of pasta don’t use pots to boil water. They have a machine with boiling water. Baskets of portioned pasta are placed onto a lowering/raising mechanism and are cooked at the same time. So, asking for a separate pot of water will require more action in the kitchen, and therefore more time until completion of the dish. Patience is key. 🙂
Oh, and with sushi: watch out for the california rolls or anything with crab. It’s usually imitation. Some places mix 50/50 real and fake.
One other thing: When I was in culinary school, the salad prep station and the sandwich prep station used the same bin of lettuce. That meant, the person from the sandwich station put their crumb covered gloves into the lettuce bin, cross contaminating the whole lot. I usually get confused looks when I ask about that in restaurants, but it’s a potential danger zone.
Just wanted to add that you have to be very careful of the tortilla chips/fries at restaurants. Just last week I went to a Mexican food restaurant, announced my allergy and asked questions. I cannot tell you how glad I was that I did that. The manager was great, coming to our table and letting me know what I could eat safely. I learned: the fryer for the chips was ONLY for the chips, but the oil used was RECYCLED from the other fryers that previously fried gluten items, and the marinade for the fajita meat contained gluten. Now I know to not only ask if the fryer is dedicated/gluten free, but also to ask if the OIL is recycled. So many times I’ve been told the chips/fries are gluten free because they have their own fryer, but I have never inquired or been told about the oil in that fryer. Hope this helps others.
I have a favorite restaurant that I have had to give up on. I have never figured out what makes me sick, but I sure won’t try again. I order grilled pork chops, seems safe, steamed broccoli, seems safe, and comes with cinnamon apples. also comes with a small salad. I am so afraid to try new restaurants now. I just get grilled chicken. Any ideas what I was eating that had gluten?
A couple of things:
1) the pork chop could be dredged in flour and/or cooked on a surface with other meat that is dredged in flour and thus not clean.
2) The salad dressing on your small salad
3) You could be sensitive to something else in the meal that looks and feels like you got glutened, but is a totally different sensitivity.
I’m belatedly responding to a post from last year, about restaurants changing their menus from “gluten-free” to so-called “gluten friendly”. Any updates about this—has anything changed or improved? Would be great if someone would spearhead trying to change this; might help if restaurants got the message that apart from the gluten-free fadists, there are significant numbers of seriously gluten-free folks who would regularly frequent any restaurant that proved itself reliably gluten-free. Would also be good to pressure the apps that list gluten-free restaurant choices to update their info, and even create separate lists that specifically warn against the places they’d previously recommended (and are no longer reliable). Also, not only is the concept of “gluten friendly” ridiculous, but the term is ridiculous too—it literally means, “we’re friendly to gluten”, the opposite of what they mean …”gluten-FREE friendly” would make more sense. But sadly, I think “gluten friendly” is probably more accurate—they actually are friendly TO gluten, not the other way around.
Hi RT, there’s no update to this post as this is still the same problem. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness was supposedly working with the National Restaurant Association as well as the FDA to improve things, but I’ve no idea how far they got. I still see the same problems now as I did when this post was shared so the information and warnings in there could still be considered current.
I agree with you… the titles restaurants use to skirt this issue is not great, but it allows them to sneak out of being held legally accountable if their food doesn’t meet the 20ppm threshold.
I’ve discovered that carrageenan makes me sick. I switched to almond milk because I thought dairy was making me sick. But this was making me vomit as well. My husband Googled it and found it contains carrageenan. (He’s gotten really good at Googling things that make me sick). It’s in most almond milk and rice milk brands. I found So Delicious Cocoanut Milk which doesn’t contain the ingredient and I’ve been fine! I used to think I was dairy intolerant because I couldn’t eat ice cream. I found Adirondack brand which is ok. Ironically, I found I can drink my organic milk with no problem.
Thank you for the Gluten Free School. It has helped me so much. I didn’t discover that I’m gluten intolerant until I was over 60 years old and long suffering. I am learning something new everyday. I now rely on myself and not conventional medicine which has done nothing for me except to put me in the hospital, load me up with antibiotics and offer me no solutions.
I’m so glad that food awareness is evolving.
Thank you so much for your kind testimonial, Diane! It means a lot that what I do helps you. I appreciate hearing your experience and I hope that I can continue to help you walk down your path to better health. And yes, it can be incredibly shocking how one “tiny” ingredient can totally make you sick that doesn’t seem to bother others.
This website was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something that
helped me. Many thanks!
I’ve found that gluten free pizza is often still rolled in wheat flower before being placed in an oven too.
I’ve never heard of that. Typically they buy pre-made crusts. Very few places make their own crusts so they wouldn’t then roll a pre-made crust in flour.
My grandmother was Mexican and ALWAYS made her enchilada sauce starting with wheat flour and butter (basic white sauce with chili powder and other flavorings). I either use canned sauce with no flour or made it from scratch and use arrowroot flour. Works great and does not add flavor so the spices come through nicely.
I’m so discouraged. I’ve been gluten intolerant 14 years and have always been really strict about it. Very rarely was I ever glutenized. But since moving to Mexico City 3 months ago I’ve been glutenized 3x while eating out. I know to ask to make sure there’s no “Knorr Suiza” which is a ubiquitous bouillon and “magi” which is also a ubiquitous Worcesrershire type sauce. Harina de trigo (wheat flour) and soy sauce too… But I’m still getting sick and I’m tired of it. I can’t find anything useful in English on the Internet as far as sneaky gluten containing foods in Mexico. What should I do? The rice has gluten, the soups have gluten, the sauces, and even many of the salsas have gluten! I got glutenized by “homemade” fancy restaurant chocolate ice cream! ?
I did not know about soy sauce. Ugh 🙁 And it blows my mind that a restaurant would not take care to have dedicated fryers or use a clean pot of boiling water!!! So what you are pointing out is that most chefs, cooks, owners, don’t really understand what this means to those who suffer. Yea I was overwhelmed before, but now more so about going out to eat. This is already worth trying, because I am feeling better thatn I have in a long time.. Thank you!!
I did not know about soy sauce. Ugh 🙁 And it blows my mind that a restaurant would not take care to have dedicated fryers or use a clean pot of boiling water!!! So what you are pointing out is that most chefs, cooks, owners, don’t really understand what this means to those who suffer. Yea I was overwhelmed before, but now more so about going out to eat. This is already worth trying, because I am feeling better than I have in a long time.. Thank you!!