Gluten-Free Fast Food? We Grade the Top 5 Chains

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Gluten-Free Fast Food: See How The Major Fast-Food Chains Stack Up

In recent years, many claim that gluten-free has become mainstream. An increase in gluten-free items in grocery stores, separate menus in hip restaurants, and better labeling has made the gluten-free lifestyle easier to maintain and easier to explain. However, anyone on a strict gluten-free diet will tell you that there are many strides yet to be made, and the gluten-free community still faces many challenges. One of those challenges is trying to find some Gluten-Free fast food!

We consulted Forbes.com for the top 5 most popular global fast food chains and analyzed their gluten-free menu options. Check out our gluten-free fast food scores and critiques of some of the world’s most popular and convenient fast food options.

1. McDonald’s

The most ubiquitous fast food joint in the world ranks pretty low on the list of gluten-free friendly establishments. In fact, some in the gluten-free community have nicknamed the restaurant “McGluten’s” — and we definitely understand why. While McDonald’s does offer some menu items with no gluten containing ingredients, the risk of cross-contamination for all items is so high that those on a gluten-free diet for medical reasons should just steer clear of McDonald’s.

The biggest debate is over the gluten-free status of McDonald’s French fries – the company once claimed that they were safe, then retracted the claim, and today there remains serious concerns. Some say the oil is shared with hash browns that contain gluten; others say there’s wheat in the beef-flavored seasoning that coats the fries. Either way, the company cannot guarantee that the French fries are gluten-free, and they are not safe for those with gluten sensitivity.

Gluten-Free Fast Food Score: D

 

2. KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken)

If you’re on a long road trip and find yourself at a pit stop with only a KFC, we hope you really like corn and salad dressing – that’s basically what comprises the “gluten-free menu” at KFC. It should be no surprise that a restaurant with “fried” in its name has very few gluten-free options, but we’re surprised at the amount of hidden gluten in menu items that usually do not contain gluten. For example, their mashed potatoes contain gluten, and their Roasted Chicken Caesar Salad without dressing and croutons somehow manages to contain gluten. It’s almost like they keep a shaker can of wheat flour handy at all times and just sprinkle it on every outgoing order.

In fact, some Celiac customers have complained that the airborne gluten in KFC restaurants have made them sick just from inhalation. For that reason, we have to give KFC a failing grade of “F”. Their gluten-free options are scarce and shaky at best, but we commend them for their readily available list of allergens and ingredients, which singles out gluten ingredients – not just wheat. But come on, KFC, can’t we get some gluten-free mashed potatoes?

Gluten-Free Fast Food Score: F

 

3. Subway

We’re giving Subway an A for effort. However, we can’t in good conscience issue a score higher than C due to the limited gluten-free options and the (extremely!) high risk of cross-contamination. Not unlike KFC, there are bound to be issues when the word “sub” is in the store’s namesake. Subway’s gluten-free options are primarily their salads and their breadless subs, the majority of which are gluten free. Here’s the issue: at any given Subway, there is a lot of airborne wheat flour and the equipment is generally shared, so cross-contamination is nearly inevitable. As a small, convenience-focused restaurant, we understand the issue: but it is equally important to make these risks clear to gluten-free customers.

In 2011, Subway began testing a gluten-free roll and a gluten-free brownie in certain markets. These limited releases have been met with mixed results: some love it, while others go home to extreme stomachaches and migraines. The company demonstrates a solid understanding of proper gluten-free preparations, but certain issues of cross-contamination are just unavoidable in a gluten-heavy environment.

Our recommendation: call ahead to your local Subway store and find out if they carry the gluten-free roll and request information on their gluten-free preparation practices. Even if you’re just ordering a sandwich, you’ll need the staff to wash their hands, change their gloves, and keep your items away from the contaminated counters and equipment. Cross your fingers for an ultra-attentive staff member.

Gluten-Free Fast Food Score: C

 

4. Pizza Hut

Of the top 5 global fast food chains, Pizza Hut is the only company to introduce a specific gluten-free alternative to a popular menu item. Pizza Hut, you get a gold star. However, those of us on a gluten-free diet for medical reasons can’t help but take issue with the following disclaimer on the Pizza Hut menu:
“Pizza Hut cannot guarantee 100% allergen-free preparation environment. While all care is taken, Pizza Hut Gluten Free bases are prepared in an environment that contains gluten and we cannot guarantee all Gluten Free bases will be 100% free from gluten. Most toppings contain Gluten. Pizza Hut cannot guarantee 100% allergen-free preparation environment. While all care is taken, Pizza Hut Gluten Free bases are prepared in an environment that contains gluten and we cannot guarantee all Gluten Free bases will be 100% free from gluten. Most toppings contain Gluten.”

That’s what those on a strict gluten-free diet call a red flag. Cross-contamination can render a gluten-free base essentially pointless, and symptoms from cross-contamination can be very detrimental and severe. Until Pizza Hut can guarantee their gluten-free crust is certified gluten free, most would be advised to steer clear of this misleading offer. Check out Pizza Hut’s detailed and allergen-friendly nutritional guide for more information on their gluten-free offerings.

Gluten-Free Fast Food Score: C

 

5. Starbucks

For years, Starbucks has artfully dodged answering any and all questions regarding the gluten-free status of their products, instead insisting that they cannot guarantee a gluten-free environment for any of their behind-the-bar drinks. Unlike the other fast food chains on this list, Starbucks makes it difficult to track down individual allergen information for each drink, and suggest that guests with allergies should consult a barista during their visit. For those in the gluten-free community, this often results in holding up lines, receiving vague answers from frustrated employees, and making last-minute decisions about your health.

Starbucks is marketed as a hip, responsible, and forward-thinking business. The company claims that customers can “count on genuine service, an inviting atmosphere and a superb cup of expertly roasted and richly brewed coffee every time.” This ceases to be true if you ask Starbucks to accommodate your gluten sensitivity. Recent statements from the company allude to improvements to their gluten-free offerings, but no timeline has been released. In the meantime, gluten-free Starbucks fans will have to resort to trial and error for each individual drink.

Gluten-Free Fast Food Score: D-

 

 

What major brands and chains would you like to see improve their commitment to gluten-free menus? Which companies are allies to the gluten-free community, and which need to step up their game? Let us know in the comments below!


  • Rational Thinker

    Boston Market has a pretty good gluten free menu 🙂 That’s the only “fast food” place I’ll eat at.

  • Damien Winter

    Great article! The one I felt had a chance of doing well was Subway but they are actually going in the opposite direction – check this out. http://subway.pissedconsumer.com/subway-and-celiac-disease-20120418313029.html

  • Angie W

    To be fair, Starbucks recently came out with a packaged rice krispie treat that is gluten free that is kept separate from their other gluten filled items. It’s actually really good. Wendy’s has quite a few gf options, so that is always where we stop if we need food really fast. They are great about changing their gloves for me too.

    • theglutenfreebar

      Thanks for the comment Angie and the info about the GF rice krispie treat. Agreed that Wendy’s has some good options. We would have liked to have Wendy’s on our list but we were only looking at the top 5 chains for this article.

      • Aveline

        Thank you! We also feel like Wendy’s is “safe” if my son sticks with a baked potato and we caution about changing gloves, etc. Chick Fil A worked for us once and Boston Market, too! BK says some items are safe, but even after protocols were followed, my son felt sick (twice) so we haven’t been there since the second time (burger patty and dedicated fries).

        Not really a fast-food destination but of all places…Chuck E Cheese is a good one for their self-enclosed, safe pizza.

        • theglutenfreebar

          Thank you for the comment and for sharing your experiences. Chuck E Cheese… didn’t think that would make the list but good to know!!!

  • grees

    My only fast food is Wendy’s.
    They have a very comprehensive allergy board in the restaurant where they clearly marks all items that have wheat. I stick to the same food items: baked potato butter, sour cream and chili. I can even enjoy a frosty.
    On occasion when the restaurant isn’t real busy, I will have them prepare some french fries for me by making sure they don’t dump the fries in the same chamber were they put all their other fried foods. They put them directly in the serving box. I’ve never had a problem with french fries if they’re carefully done and the people care. The staff at Wendy’s always seems cooperative.
    The menu selection may be limited but it’s always guaranteed not to make you sick!

    • theglutenfreebar

      Thanks Grees. Angie (below) made the same comments and we would agree based on our own experience. Especially interesting about how they’ll got the extra mile for you for those fries!!

    • Nicholas

      About a year ago I went in to a local Wendy’s restaurant (Redding, CA), and they were able to carefully prepare a bunless burger for me without gluten contamination. I go there to get Chili fairly often, but for the first time I saw the person that helped me a year ago last week and he remembered my needs. I won’t eat at any fast food restaurants besides Wendy’s.

      • theglutenfreebar

        Thanks for the comment Nicholas – that’s very cool that Wendy’s is providing that level of service. If only other restaurants could do the same…

  • Michelle

    I recently took my daughter to Wendy’s after a customer in KFC directed us there, we had not been to either in years. My daughter has Coeliac Disease and we were struggling to find somewhere to eat for her. Wendy’s was very nice and the chile was great too. Just found your website, excellent info, thanks.

  • jlt131

    I’m going to guess you are in the USA? Here in Canada, things are a little different – we have all of the above listed fast food restaurants, but the ingredients in some of the items seems to vary. McD’s is actually one of the safest places for me – their fries have different ingredients (here, they’re just potato, oil, and salt) and are in a dedicated fryer. The hashbrowns and meat patties are also safe – so I can order a burger without the bun and be fine. I notice other commenters mentioning Wendy’s – a place I can’t find anything safe to eat (even the chicken on the salad made me sick). And the Frostys have malt in them so they are not gluten free! So sad. I miss those. 🙂 I do totally agree with the Starbucks thing – they were actually quite rude to me in an email I sent, saying ingredients lists are proprietary information and basically told me to just stay away. Guess they don’t want my money!!
    A good thing to remember though, if you’re travelling across borders – just because the restaurant looks and smells the same, you may want to research the actual ingredients used!

    • theglutenfreebar

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right – this does apply to the US. That is an amazing difference in service that you are getting in Canada vs what we experience in the US. Would you be interested in writing a guest post of this article (but the Canadian version)? We could work out the details. If so please email us at info@theglutenfreebar.com.

    • find me gf

      belive it or not but there is a lot of stuff that is gluten free here in the usa or even if you eat out there are many places with menus that are gluten free i dont know what area you are coming to in the usa but if you get the app find me gf (gluten free) it will give you a bunch of options and places that are gluten free

      • theglutenfreebar

        thanks for the comment and we do agree the find me gf app is pretty great!

  • Carlene

    Hello everyone,
    I am new to a gluten free diet, I have been told I am gluten intolerant so I am changing my entire diet to better my health. Can anyone suggest recipes and store bought foods that are gluten free? I do not eat out often enough to consider it an issue. But, I sure love my coffee and would love to continue drinking it. Almond milk is gluten free and taste great!! Should I avoid sugar?

    • Aveline

      Hello, Carlene,
      When you were told about your gluten intolerance, was Celiac Disease completely ruled out? Newly diagnosed celiacs are often told to avoid dairy for the first few months while the gut heals, but for intolerance any milk should be okay, from my understanding. There are those with all types of “gut issues” who feel better after taking all FODMAPs out of their diet, which includes grains and sugars if you want to google that. We haven’t gone that far, so I can’t say.

      We’re GF for my young son with CD, so we tend to know more about chicken fingers, pizza and cookies than more sophisticated GF offerings, but some favorite brands are Glutino, Udi’s, Trader Joe’s, Three Bakers and Schar. I’m still googling recipes and looking for high ratings to know what to try. I mix my own marinades and cook simply when making dinners and we rarely eat out. I usually make coffee at home and take it black, no sugar, so I’m sorry I can’t help you there. Your best bet for your health is to stick with basic proteins and vegetables and be careful with starch (arsenic is in most of US rice, even more than that from India and China, for example – so while it’s often safe as a GF offering, it’s not ideal in large amounts)

      Good luck!

  • Doug

    New York Fries in Canada, The Works is a safe GF lunch when on the road, Cut their own potatoes, no coating and fry only the fries.

  • dave

    Why oh why do people trust their health to restaurants? If you are a Coeliac then continued exposure to gluten will slowly make things worse over the years. In my case, it very nearly killed me. Why would you risk that for the sake of eating out? The ONLY way you can be sure is to make the food yourself. It’s no big deal and it may well save your life.

    • theglutenfreebar

      Thanks Dave…we agree that making your own food is always the best option….take care!

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