Gluten-Free Beans for Those Sensitive to Trace Gluten

If Beans Are Gluten-Free, Why Do They Make Me Sick?

Gluten-free and reacting to beans? Here are some ways to deal. Getty Images/Tim Platt

Question: If beans are naturally gluten-free, why do they always seem to make me sick? How can I enjoy beans safely?

Answer: There are two queries I see repeatedly about beans. Although the wording varies, they run along these lines:

  1. I always react to beans — why is that, when they're gluten-free?
  2. I think I found barley in my bag of gluten-free-labeled beans — what's going on?

Of course, when you see these two queries side-by-side, you get an idea of what may be happening with our fiber-filled legume friends.

Together, these two questions show why those of us with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity and who happen to be particularly sensitive to trace gluten always seem to have problems with beans, even if they're labeled "gluten-free."

What's The Deal with Beans?

Beans — especially lentils, but also all other varieties of legume — frequently are grown in the same fields in rotation with gluten grains. As I describe in my article on sourcing gluten-free beans, lentils often are paired with barley, while farmers alternate their crops of garbanzo beans and green peas with wheat. They then use the same equipment to harvest both.

The problem is, these practices are pervasive at the farm level. Therefore, even certified gluten-free suppliers like can't guarantee the purity of their products — they only can guarantee that the beans haven't been exposed to gluten once they've arrived at their certified facility.

Otherwise, they're at the mercy of the farmers who grow and harvest the raw product.

This isn't a theoretical problem: I've had numerous reports of grains of barley in bags of certified gluten-free lentils, and sporadic emails about whole gluten grains in other beans. And if there are whole grains, you can bet there's plenty of grain dust you can't see, but which can be enough to make you react.

Can Washing The Beans De-Gluten Them?

You might think you could simply wash off those traces of gluten grains, and I've seen others in the gluten-free community advise folks that just running your beans under a stream cold water should be enough to purify them.

However, informal experiments using home gluten testing kits show it's not that easy to get rid of the contamination — some seems to remain behind, despite your best scrubbing efforts.

The problem is, gluten is a very sticky molecule, and it's just not very responsive to washing. Friends who also happen to be scientists have experimented with this, and have found you can lessen — although not eliminate — the gluten cross-contamination in beans by washing them repeatedly in water with dish soap, and then rinsing.

Frankly, this yields mixed results for me (I count myself among the more sensitive). Consequently, I've stopped trying it — instead, sadly, I've all but eliminated store-bought beans from our daily diet.

So, Are You Saying To Cut Out Beans?

Let me stress that this isn't a problem for everyone.

If you can pick the croutons off a salad before eating it and not get glutened, then you likely can enjoy all the beans you want without reacting.

If you've been enjoying beans and you're not suffering from glutening symptoms afterward, then add beans to your list of things you just don't need to worry about.

However, many of us do need to be more careful, and for us, beans can represent a major problem.

If you're in this group, definitely stick to the suppliers I recommend (I provide a list here: Gluten-Free Beans). But don't be surprised if those bite you, too — as I said above, I've had reports from people who have found barley in bags from certified gluten-free companies.

Washing your beans with soap might be enough to forestall a glutening for someone who's somewhat, but not extremely, sensitive to trace gluten.

But if you're especially sensitive to trace gluten (if, for example, you react to most grain-based foods and processed foods), washing might lessen your reaction to cross-contaminated beans, but you're unlikely to eliminate it.

You also can avoid bean varieties that are more likely to contain stray gluten grains. These include lentils (extremely cross-contaminated, in my experience) and green peas. Larger beans (garbanzo beans and giant white beans, for example) may be less susceptible to gluten cross-contamination (and it would be harder for those stray gluten grains to hide in them, as well).

Finally, consider finding a local farm that harvests beans by hand. We have one nearby, and although the farm only grows one or two types of beans (mainly butter beans, which are similar to lima beans), I know those beans are completely gluten-free. I buy as many as I can afford (they're expensive this way) and then dry them for the winter.

So, you don't need to give up beans if you're very sensitive to gluten ... but you may need to put some extra effort into sourcing and preparing safe options.