How to Stay Gluten-Free at Ice Cream Parlors

You'll need to take some precautions to avoid cross-contamination

ice cream parlor
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There's no reason you can't enjoy ice cream in an ice cream parlor if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity—most shops should have something safe for you to order. In fact, many flavors of hard ice cream and the vast majority of soft serve ice cream flavors already are gluten-free.

However, you will need to take some precautions against gluten cross-contamination, just as you should at any restaurant. In fact, ice cream served in shops is at high risk for cross-contamination, since workers use the same scoops in both gluten-free and gluten-containing ice cream flavors.

Here's a rundown of what you'll need to consider to order ice cream that's gluten-free, followed by a list of national ice cream chains and (where available) their gluten-free options.

Avoiding Cross-Contamination

Most ice cream shops offer a variety of gluten-free flavors, including the basics (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry) and possibly some more exotic varieties. So you should be safe as long as you avoid the cones and obvious gluten-containing flavors and toppings, right?

Er, no. If you stand back and watch the workers, you'll notice that they use the same scoops to scoop the safe flavors and the gluten-y flavors. They might rinse the scoops off with water in between, but they might not, or they might not do it very thoroughly. In addition, the toppings frequently are grouped close together, with gluten-containing options like cookie crumbles right next to gluten-free products like M&Ms. It's a potential gluten cross-contamination nightmare.

Soft-serve ice cream is usually a safer bet than scooped ice cream, but you still need to watch out for a few potential problem areas — the cautions I list in my article on gluten-free frozen yogurt also apply to soft serve ice cream, so take a look if soft serve is your first choice.

How to Order Gluten-Free Ice Cream

So what can you do if you want scooped ice cream, but don't want to get glutened? Here's a checklist to help you stay safe.

  • First, verify the ingredients with your server. It won't do you any good to take these other precautions if you don't choose a gluten-free ice cream flavor. Many shops will hoist the tub out of the freezer and let you examine the label for gluten-containing ingredients. If the ice cream is truly homemade, be sure to double-check the ingredients with a manager or someone who's involved in actually making the ice cream—some recipes actually call for ingredients that contain gluten in ice cream (usually flour as a thickener).
  • Ask your server to scoop your ice cream out of a fresh container, which should eliminate the risk of cross-contamination at the store. You might not get the flavor you want (most shops don't have spares of every flavor in the back freezer), but you'll stay safer.
  • Ask your server to change gloves and to use a completely clean scooper, not just one that's been used multiple times and then rinsed off.
  • Consider getting soft serve ice cream in a basic flavor such as chocolate or vanilla, since these are almost guaranteed to be gluten-free (check the ingredients first, of course), and will be free of cross-contamination, too.
  • Get a cup, not a cone... unless you bring your own gluten-free ice cream cone and ask the server to use it.
  • Avoid the toppings unless fresh containers are available from the back. If I'm planning ahead, I'll bring my own gluten-free toppings to use.
  • Tip generously—this is obviously a lot more work for your server than a typical ice cream order.

If you follow these rules, the odds for you to get ice cream at a shop and avoid getting sick as part of the process go up dramatically.

Gluten-Free Options at Ice Cream Shops

Here's a rundown of national ice cream parlor chains and their gluten-free options, where available:

  • Baskin Robbins. Baskin Robbins provides ingredients and lists allergen information for wheat (but not gluten) on its website.
  • Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shops. Ben & Jerry's ingredients change frequently, but the store personnel should have updated allergen information for you to review, according to the company. Store workers have been trained to avoid allergen cross-contamination, but "they may be out of practice, as most allergic customers just choose to avoid scoop shops," the company says in a statement. So don't be afraid to offer guidance as the server is scooping your order.
  • Carvel Ice Cream. Most Carvel flavors are gluten-free, but some are not, according to the company's gluten-free statement. Individual stores will have full ingredient lists. Since the ice cream is soft serve, it may be less subject to cross-contamination, particularly if you choose a flavor the store always carries and makes in the same machine, such as chocolate or vanilla. The chocolate crunchies used in Carvel ice cream cakes are not gluten-free. However, Carvel locations can substitute a gluten-free product such as fudge if you want a gluten-free ice cream cake; in that case, you'll need to call ahead and ask what's possible.
  • Cold Stone Creamery. Cold Stone carries several gluten-containing ice creams, including Cake Batter, Cinnamon Bun, Cookie Dough, and Oatmeal Cookie Batter. In addition, the way that the various flavors are scooped and handled in the stores' freezer cases makes cross-contamination a real risk. If you decide to try Cold Stone, ask the store personnel to use a clean mixing stone, fresh utensils and fresh gloves. You also can avoid the mixing stone and ask your server to place your ice cream directly in a cup. In addition, beware of the toppings, since there's a large risk of cross-contamination there, as well.
  • Dairy Queen. Dairy Queen offers a list of suggested products on its website. Vanilla and chocolate soft serve ice creams, plus several different possible toppings, all made the gluten-free list. The company cautions that many of its Blizzard treats contain gluten and all are made in the same machine, so you may want to steer clear of Blizzards to avoid potential cross-contamination. Also, as with most fast food restaurants, avoid anything that's fried, since Dairy Queen outlets use a fryer shared with gluten items.
  • Friendly's Ice Cream. Friendly's discloses information on wheat in its products (but not all gluten). Many ice cream flavors should be gluten-free, but you should check with the particular location for the most up-to-date information on ingredients.
  • Maggie Moo's. The chain offers mainly safe ice cream flavors, but does sell several flavors that include wheat. The company acknowledges that it "does not have an allergen free environment," so obviously the regular caveats apply here.

A Word from Verywell

It can help to visit an ice cream parlor at an off time—service might be less rushed and more careful that way—and to exercise caution in choosing a flavor. But if you take some precautions, you should be able to stop by many different shops and enjoy a scoop (or two, or three) of ice cream.

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