When Eggs Might Not Be Gluten-Free

brown and white eggs in carton
These eggs should be gluten-free. Jasmin Kämmerer/EyeEm/Getty Images

Eggs in their shells should be close to perfectly gluten-free. However, those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity nonetheless need to be very cautious with eggs, since they're quite susceptible to gluten cross-contamination in cooking.

It's also true that some very sensitive people with celiac or gluten sensitivity have reported problems with eggs from chickens fed a heavy diet of gluten grains. However, this will not be a problem for the vast majority of people following the gluten-free diet (more on this in a minute).

For most of us, any problems with eggs most likely stem from one of two places: gluten cross-contamination when the eggs are cooked, or from a sensitivity to the eggs themselves (eggs are one of the top eight allergens in the U.S., so it's not unusual for someone to suffer from sensitivities to both eggs and gluten).

If you're preparing your eggs in a gluten-free kitchen with dedicated gluten-free utensils, you should be fine. But in a shared kitchen, you'll need to watch out for potential problems with shared cooking spaces, utensils, and pans in order to keep your eggs safe. This is a particular problem because eggs so often are cooked together with gluten-containing breakfast foods, such as pancakes and French toast.

Dining Out Gluten-Free for Breakfast

When you're following the gluten-free diet and you eat eggs out, you need to be quite careful.

Many restaurants that serve breakfast cook their eggs on the same grill as French toast and pancakes ... and that will thoroughly cross-contaminate your otherwise perfectly safe meal. In addition, some restaurants (the International House of Pancakes, for one) actually mix a little pancake batter into their scrambled eggs and omelets to make them fluffier (yikes!).

To stay safe eating eggs at a restaurant, I follow my rules for eating out safely gluten-free. Specifically, I ask that my eggs be prepared in their own, clean pan using clean utensils, as far away as possible from where any pancake batter or toast is being prepared. I've had pretty decent success doing this, although you always need to be super-careful.

Can Gluten-Eating Chickens Produce Gluten-Containing Eggs?

A few people who are extremely sensitive to trace gluten have reported glutenings (i.e., gluten reactions) when they eat eggs from chickens that eat mainly wheat and barley. These same people say they are fine when they eat eggs they obtain from farmers who don't feed their chickens gluten grains.

Now, this may seem pretty far-fetched, but there's actually a small amount of indirect scientific evidence that indicates it may be theoretically possible for proteins or protein fragments to pass from chicken feed into the eggs themselves (gluten is a protein).

An Ohio State University graduate student experimented with feeding chickens a diet high in soy protein to see if he could influence the amount of soy isoflavones (a component of soy protein) in those chickens' eggs. He found that he could: chickens fed the high-soy diet routinely produced eggs higher in isoflavones.

Now, obviously this experiment did not involve gluten grains, and other scientists argue that you can't extend the conclusions of the soy isoflavone experiment to gluten grains. However, this research indicates it may be theoretically possible for gluten-eating chickens to produce eggs that contain a tiny bit of gluten protein (or, more likely, gluten protein fragments).

If these eggs did have gluten in them, it would be a very small amount—likely far, far below even 1 part per million (for comparison, foods are generally considered "gluten-free" if they contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten, or are less than 0.0001% gluten). Commercially available tests for gluten in foods can't reliably detect gluten below around 3 parts per million (and can't detect small fragments of gluten protein at all) so it's impossible to say how much gluten or gluten fragments, if any, actually is in these eggs.

The Bottom Line

This is not a problem for the vast majority of people on the gluten-free diet. But yes, there are people who seem to be sensitive to gluten at those levels, and they've reported seeing their symptoms resolve when they drop eggs from gluten-fed chickens. They've been able to eat eggs again by sourcing them directly from farmers who don't feed their chickens gluten grains. This isn't evidence that gluten can be present in eggs, but it does raise the question.

So what can you do if you believe you're getting glutened from your eggs? Well, there's also a growing number of small farmers who advertise soy-free eggs for people who are sensitive to soy proteins, and some are extending this to gluten grains. You can look around your area to see if truly free-range eggs are available.

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