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?
“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?
Elisa Bosley is a freelance food writer, editor and consultant. Find her at elisabosley.com.