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.
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
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
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!