Gluten-Free Diet Dangers: The Top 9 Places to Trip You Up

The gluten-free diet seems simple enough to implement—just eliminate all wheat, barley, and rye products and you're living gluten-free, right?

But while it is easy to drop whole wheat bread and wheat thins from your own personal menu (the gluten in them is pretty obvious), rooting out all the covert gluten takes some time... and that's where newcomers to the gluten-free diet tend to get tripped up.

So where can gluten hide? Practically anywhere and everywhere. To really root it out, you'll need to learn how to find gluten on food labels. But as a starter, these nine foods, products and situations are high-risk. Beware.


Soy Sauce

soy sauce with ginger and wasabi
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Yes, despite the soy-based name, almost all soy sauce contains wheat — often as the number one ingredient. And because almost all Chinese food contains soy sauce, this places Chinese take-out on the danger list, as well.

It's possible to find a wheat-free and gluten-free soy sauce to substitute—look for tamari, which is traditionally brewed Japanese soy sauce, made without wheat. San-J brand tamari is gluten-free certified, and there are other brands available, as well.

Some Japanese restaurants also stock tamari for their gluten-sensitive guests—something to keep in mind when you're looking for a good gluten-free ethnic restaurant. In addition, traditional Thai soy sauce also should be gluten-free, but you always should ask, since most Thai restaurants in the United States use wheat-based soy sauce.


Cream-Based Soups

cream kohlrabi soup
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Like soy sauce, you probably wouldn't think that cream-based soups should cause a gluten problem—after all, the label says "cream," not "cream of wheat."

Well, the sad little secret is that many commercial "cream" soups get their creamy texture from starch, not real cream. And that starch often comes from wheat flour. In fact, the top commercial soup manufacturers use tons of wheat every year to produce canned soup.

To avoid the gluten, read labels carefully and look for higher-end soups as opposed to the less expensive stuff. Prepared soup that comes in boxes often carries a gluten-free label (although it's not as creamy). You might not wind up with the flavor you want, but you might discover a new favorite in the process. Many canned soup brands offer soups that are gluten-free.


Ice Cream

colorful ice cream scoops with two red spoons
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As with cream-based soups, ice cream shouldn't include gluten... it's a dairy product. But it's unfortunately not that simple.

Plenty of ice cream brands include flavors such as "Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough" and "Key Lime Pie," which contain gluten. Others add cookies or unsafe candies to their products, so you'll have to check ingredients lists carefully before purchasing.

It's possible to find plenty of gluten-free ice cream flavors, though, and even such scary-sounding flavors such as chocolate chip cookie dough may be gluten-free (it depends on the brand).

And believe it or not, a few commercially produced ice creams do contain wheat flour as an ingredient, even in simple flavors like vanilla—it serves as a thickener. 

You also need to be aware of the risk of cross-contamination when you're enjoying ice cream in an ice cream parlor, since the workers frequently use the same scoops for all the flavors. To purchase ice cream out, first locate a known gluten-free flavor. Then, ask the workers to get a fresh tub of it from the back and use a clean scoop. Get your toppings from a new container, too.


"Wheat-Free" Products

wheat-free symbol
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Lots of people equate "wheat" with "gluten." But if you focus only on wheat, it's easy to get tripped up by choosing products labeled "wheat-free." They're free of wheat, of course (that's what the label says, after all), but they still can contain barley or rye ingredients... and they sometimes do.

Wheat-free is not the same as gluten-free.

If you've got celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you need to omit all gluten, not just wheat. So don't be fooled by "wheat-free" banners on packaging—those products still can gluten you.



woman pouring beer into glass
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It always surprises me how many people don't know that conventional beer contains gluten. But then I think back to my own early days following the gluten-free diet, and remember how I got tripped up—badly—by a bottle of beer.

When you only indulge in it occasionally (think: summer barbecue or picnic), you don't necessarily focus on beer's ingredients. But those ingredients feature barley... as I found out after I downed one for the first time in a year.

These days, you can find gluten-free beer in many supermarkets and in many restaurants. Most people frankly don't like it as well as regular beer, but brewers are getting more skilled and the beer gets better all the time.

Steer clear of so-called "gluten-removed" beers, as they're not safe for people with celiac disease.


Prescription Medications

senior woman looking at pill bottle label
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Food labels must declare all wheat ingredients (but not barley or rye ingredients), making it easier for us to rule out particular products. But prescription drug manufacturers don't follow the same rules. Some prescription drugs contain gluten grains (almost always wheat) as a filler, and there's no requirement that they disclose the wheat or gluten to consumers.

In fact, it can be difficult to determine if the drug you're taking is gluten-free—ingredients can change, even on brand-name prescription drugs, and the company's customer service representatives may not know.

To cope with this problem, make sure your pharmacist knows you need to be gluten-free (and knows what "gluten-free" means, too). Also, double-check every single refill, since ingredients can and do change frequently.


Gourmet Meats

supermarket rotisserie chicken

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Plenty of high-end grocery retailers sell gourmet prepared meats these days. You can buy all sorts of sausages, along with prepared ribs and chicken or fish already in a delicious sauce.

However, I've found ingredients lists for many of these appetizing-looking foods are lacking. The stores often obtain the sauces and spice rubs from outside suppliers, and may not track the ingredients carefully.

Even if the meat counter workers know exactly what's in them (and know for sure there's no gluten), you still need to beware. These products are "prepared in a facility that also processes gluten"—as you'll see when you look at all the bread crumb-containing items at the meat counter. Steer clear, especially if you're particularly sensitive to trace gluten.


Restaurant Meals

people at nice restaurant

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It's getting easier to eat out gluten-free—restaurants are more aware of gluten issues, and many restaurant chains offer gluten-free menus. But dining out still contains plenty of pitfalls.

In the beginning of your diet, it's easy to persuade yourself to order something that "looks safe" off the menu, without making a pest of yourself with the server. But that approach is fraught with peril—hamburgers can contain bread crumbs, marinades can include soy sauce, and cross contamination may be rampant in the kitchen.

As tough as it is (and I still find it difficult), you need to tell your server your meal must be gluten-free. In many cases, you'll need to get the manager and/or chef involved to learn the ingredients and get a safe meal. Learn the rules for staying gluten-free at restaurants to dine out safely.


Meals with Friends and Family

friends having meal and laughing
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I think it's more difficult to stay gluten-free when eating out at the home of a friend or family member than it is at a restaurant. Many restaurant chefs and staffs undergo training on allergies, but your mom doesn't.

As you likely know well, going gluten-free involves a steep learning curve, and most people can't create a perfectly gluten-free meal without some study (and a deep cleaning of their kitchen). Sadly, that goes for your friends and family too.

Honestly, I don't advise you to eat food fixed by friends or family unless you supervised the entire process. They may not realize that a dash of soy sauce or a dusting of flour means they've just ruined your meal, and they won't know to watch for crumbs in the butter or other hazards. It's safer to bring your own food.

A Word from Verywell

Obviously, gluten can hide in many places you wouldn't necessarily expect. When you're just starting to follow the gluten-free diet, you can't let your guard down at all. It will seem like a lot of work, especially if you make mistakes (and pay for them with a sick day or two).

But once you've climbed the diet's steep learning curve and mastered the intricacies, you'll find that it's second nature to identify the hidden gluten in foods... and to avoid it.

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Allred LK, Lesko K, McKiernan D, Kupper C, Guandalini S. The Celiac Patient Antibody Response to Conventional and Gluten-Removed BeerJ AOAC Int. 2017;100(2):485-491. doi:10.5740/jaoacint.16-0184

Additional Reading

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.