Delicious Living Blog

Sushi is not gluten free. Who knew?

Sushi or sushi rolls made of rice, fish, avocado, and nori, seem safe for gluten-free eaters, right? Wrong. Turns out many sushi ingredients contain hidden gluten.

Recently my gluten-intolerant son called and mentioned that he was feeling quite ill... maybe he’d caught a flu bug somewhere. Given the fact that he’s a strict gluten-free eater (and has been since he determined a gluten intolerance at age 21), my first question was: Did you eat anything unusual?

Sushi“Well,” he said, “I did have sushi rolls for the first time on Friday. But they [the restaurant and catering company that brought the food] told me it was OK—it’s just rice, fish, avocado, and nori.”

That sounds safe, I thought. But when we talked again the next morning and he said he still felt ill, he added that the symptoms definitely “seemed gluten-y”—no fever as with a flu, but “I felt loopy all day” and generally crummy. He even decided to work at home, a sign that he really felt off.

“It’s gotta be that sushi,” I said. Japanese food is notoriously difficult to ensure as gluten free because of the heavy reliance on soy sauce, which contains gluten. But rice and fish? I figured that he must have gotten some gluten somewhere, but I didn’t know where.

A bit later, he texted me. “On a gluten free website: ‘Most fake crab meat used in sushi rolls is made with wheat.’ There it is! According to this website it’s EVERYTHING in sushi—the rice, the crab, all of it. Cross contamination + Japanese ingredients total up to very gluten-y.” Here's what we learned.

Sushi's hidden gluten

  • Sticky sushi rice is typically made with Japanese rice vinegar or rice wine that, you guessed it, contain gluten.
     
  • And that “crab meat?” It’s not crab, of course, but pulverized white fish mixed with a binder—there’s the wheat—to mimic the texture of crab.
     
  • Even the sesame seeds that sometimes coat sushi rolls may be mixed with a wheat product.
     
  • And let’s not even get started on possible cross-contamination issues from tempura, soy sauce, and more.

The moral of the story: Asking is crucial, but it doesn’t always work. The restaurant and catering company both said the food was safe for my son to eat—wrong. You can see why gluten-free eaters and advocates are anxious for the FDA to finalize its gluten-free definition and labeling rule! [UPDATE: In August 2013, the FDA finally ruled on a definition of gluten free as containing less than 20ppm gluten. Any foods labeled "gluten free" must meet this standard by August 2014.]

In the meantime, queries about seasonings, sauces, and preparation still matter, but if the ingredients come from another country, their labeling may not reveal it, so only trust a restaurant that’s done its due diligence and can tell you exactly what they’ve used in their food.

And if you ask whether an item is gluten free and a restaurant or server says, hesitatingly, “I think so,” ask yourself whether it’s worth taking the word of someone who doesn’t know what you’re talking about. 

(If you're wondering whether sushi is gluten free, you also may be curious whether wine and other alcohols are gluten free.) 

Which brings me to my next quest: Is HoneyBaked Ham gluten free?

Discuss this Blog Entry 16

on Aug 9, 2011

While it is always a good idea to double check ingredients when eating out (don't just ask if your meal is "gluten-free" - inquire about ingredients used so you can be the judge), sushi can be a great gluten-free option.
Soy sauce is off limits (unless you bring your own GF soysauce or tamari), avoid the crab stick/fake Krab typical to California Rolls, and ensure that the sushi rice is not made with malt vinegar. Read more about how to avoid those gluten pitfalls when dining out here: http://blog.julesglutenfree.com/2011/02/gluten-free-label-reading-101/
Cheers!
~jules
Blog.JulesGlutenFree.com

on Aug 10, 2011

It is highly possible to find sushi that is gluten free. As always, you just need to inquire about a few ingredients:

Soy sauce - your dipping sauce needs to be wheat-free tamari, but also look for ingredients within sushi rolls that have been glazed with soy sauce (such as broiled eel) and avoid those.
Vinegar - rice vinegar should not contain gluten. Sake (sometimes called rice wine) should be gluten free as well. Ask to see the label if you're doubtful. If a restaurant uses malt vinegar for the sushi rice then take a pass. Marukan rice vinegar is a great brand and tests at less than 5 ppm gluten.
Imitation crab - usually contains gluten. Some brands are made with tapioca instead of wheat flour, but these are harder to find. Try rolls that contain fresh crab instead.
Wasabi - fresh wasabi is gluten free; check the label on powdered wasabi, but many of these are gf as well.

You don't need to eliminate sushi from your life, just ask plenty of questions or even try making your own!
~Laura B. Russell
author of The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen

on Aug 10, 2011

Thank you for the encouraging words and information about sushi -- my son and I were just so surprised that it was one of those potential pitfalls (and then, of course, it seemed obvious after we thought about it). The thing is, he thought he HAD inquired ... and both the restaurant and catering company for his office told him it was gluten free. The ingredients SOUNDED innocuous enough ... I mean, rice is one of his go-to staples. But we didn't know that sushi rice is potentially (and even typically) prepared with something that contains gluten. So I guess it's just one of those foods that you have to REALLY ask about and see the labels yourself.

Laurie Gauguin (not verified)
on Aug 10, 2011

Hi Elisa,

I'm so sorry to hear about your son's incident. Yes, it's surprising how many seemingly safe foods do contain gluten.

Regarding rice vinegar, it should not contain gluten. There have been many debates about the potential gluten content of vinegars, and the latest research says that vinegars, with the exception of malt vinegar, are gluten free.

Dr. Peter Green wrote this in his book, "Celiac Disease: A hidden epidemic":
"Distilled vinegar is gluten-free and has always been gluten-free. the only vinegar to avoid is malt vinegar, which is made from barley and is not distilled. There is no evidence that suggests vinegar might be dangerous for those who follow the gluten-free diet."

As for cross contamination in the restaurant, well, that's another story.

www.lauriegauguin.com

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 19, 2011

Thank you for this article, I recently ate sushi and maki rolls at a japanese restaurant and shortly after felt horribly sick to my stomach and decided to do some investigating!
I think the malt rice may have been what got me. That and the cross contamination!!! I dont think i ever want to bother with sushi ever again unless it's made under my own roof! Thanks

on Oct 13, 2011

Just a side note. There is one hidden item that contains gluten and it always gets people. Flying Fish Roe or Tobiko often contains soy sauce. Most roe that is used in sushi restaurants today is synthetic. Caviar and real fish roe are obviously safe you just need to ask.

on Nov 1, 2011

Ah, I hadn't thought about the roe issue; interesting, and a good thing to note. And yes, most vinegar is just fine for GF eaters, but if you can't see the actual label that they used for making the sushi rice, then I wouldn't risk it.

on Jan 23, 2012

Hi Elisa - Sorry to dig up an old post, but I felt compelled since I feel that this post is very discouraging and misleading for those who might be new to the gluten-free diet. To title your post as "Sushi is not gluten free" seems rather irresponsible in light of the vast information out there to the contrary.

Generally speaking, sushi should be gluten-free. Rice wine vinegar should never contain gluten and I have yet to find a rice vinegar that does contain it. You are correct in stating that imitation crab meat has gluten - however, that certainly doesn't apply to all (or even most) sushi.

The overall message should be that people with Celiac or gluten intolerance must be careful and watch out for things like soy sauce or imitation crab meat - not that ALL sushi is inherently unsafe since your son had a reaction. I sympathize with him as a fellow gluten-free eater, but your comments will be taken too literally by those who are new to the diet and don't fully understand all of the in's and out's of a GF diet. It's better to ask questions and be a knowledgeable consumer rather than eliminate entire food categories due to one bad experience.

Just my two cents :)

LD is Gluten FREE (not verified)
on Mar 18, 2012

I have Celiacs disease AND am a server and am super amazed at how many of you put your full trust in a SERVER? Most do NOT have a CLUE what gluten free IS even and if you rely on others for your health..well just amazed is all....take some responsibility for how you feel..or you will continue to be sick! Only I can care for MYSELF BEST!!! Oh yeah..I am a server and I DON'T EAT OUT....AT ALL!! I cook ALL organic gluten free soy and gmo free HOMEMADE and healthy for ME..at HOME!!!

on Jul 2, 2012

First of all, I have Celiac disease. The writer of this article is correct. Sushi often contains wheat product or wheat paste. I recently bought some at the grocery store and it says right there on the ingredients "Contain's wheat paste and wheat product". Even on the packages such as the Sashimi over rice it listed clearly on all the labels that they all contained wheat paste and wheat product. I was foolish enough to try it without first reading the label until I became very ill after eating it remained ill the following morning. I don't at all think the article is discouraging. Sure, if you are new to having to eat gluten free then it isn't fun to find out what foods contain gluten BUT it is VERY IMPORTANT that you do. Who cares if it is discouraging?? People with a true gluten intolerance NEED TO KNOW THIS! I only wish I had seen this article prior to making my mistake of ingesting this. Now I had to miss work and missed out on a fun filled day with my son because I have to lay around in bed feeling ill.

on Jul 11, 2012

Thanks Jess11135 and BullsAndBears and others. Yes, it's really critical to do your homework and ask lots of questions and read the fine print no matter what. It's not my intent to slam the entire sushi category, but for most people (especially those new to sushi), "sushi" means rolls, which do tend to be particularly problematic for gluten issues. Yes, it's possible to find gluten-free sushi, but it's not a given, despite the innocent-sounding ingredients that "should" be gluten free.

celiacandthecity.ca (not verified)
on Aug 28, 2012

I also just want to add, beware of the green tea that is served (often for free) at Japanese restaurants. I have a dear friend who's a server at a sushi joint who informed me that restaurants, including the one she works at, often add roasted barley, or malt to the green tea to make it less bitter to western people. Of course a green tea bag should be safe, but I used to always drink the tea offered while waiting for take-out. And I wondered why I kept getting sick! I stick to sashimi, edamame and rolls or maki from places I know have safe rice. People who say that rice vinegar never contains gluten are simply lucky to have never come across one. Traditionally they shouldn't...but unfortunately it's IS an added ingredient in some brands.

celiacandthecity.ca (not verified)
on Aug 28, 2012

I also just want to add, beware of the green tea that is served (often for free) at Japanese restaurants. I have a dear friend who's a server at a sushi joint who informed me that restaurants, including the one she works at, often add roasted barley, or malt to the green tea to make it less bitter to western people. Of course a green tea bag should be safe, but I used to always drink the tea offered while waiting for take-out. And I wondered why I kept getting sick! I stick to sashimi, edamame and rolls or maki from places I know have safe rice. People who say that rice vinegar never contains gluten are simply lucky to have never come across one. Traditionally they shouldn't...but unfortunately it's IS an added ingredient in some brands.

AlAl (not verified)
on Apr 27, 2013

Of course sushi is not gluten free! Soy sauce is naturally made with gluten and most commercial wasabi pastes are naturally made with gluten. Home-made sushi can be gluten free if you use gluten free tamari instead the standard soy sauce and substitute wasabi with hot mustard.

earthmama24 (not verified)
on Jul 25, 2013

I am also very sensitive to gluten and there is a definite gluten poisoning feel! I have gotten sushi a couple places with no problems. One restaurant wss very knowledgable and even had tamari available upon request. One local grocery store, Publix, sells sushi and I have had no issues with it as of yet. I used to love California rolls but haven't yet found a good substitute for the crab.

spinnerette (not verified)
on Sep 15, 2013

I typically only eat sushi at a restaurant with a designated gluten free menu where it looks like they've done their homework on the ingredients, it's too much of a land mine otherwise. Common sushi ingredients that contain gluten are imitation crab, spicy mayo, tempura flakes (obviously not GF and sometimes they'll sprinkle them on when it wasn't in the description of the roll), roe (i.e. masago) and unagi sauce. I'm always surprised when I go to a sushi restaurant with a gluten free menu how much of their menu is not gluten free, it's usually the majority. If they don't use malt vinegar you're usually safe with a spicy tuna or philadelphia roll but use caution and ask.

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