6 Surprising Supermarket Foods to Avoid When You're Gluten-Free

Foods that May Contain Hidden Gluten

Supermarkets increasingly are providing lists of their gluten-free products, or even labeling foods "gluten-free" right on the shelf. That makes it easier for people who are following the gluten-free diet because they have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

However, there are some gluten-free hazards you might encounter in grocery shopping that could surprise you. These are foods that seem like they ought to be gluten-free (or at least that they contain no gluten ingredients), but they either contain hidden gluten or carry a significant risk of gluten cross-contamination, simply because of the way they're processed.

Read on for six hidden sources of gluten in supermarket foods, how you can avoid them, and what you can buy to replace them in your shopping cart.


Gluten-Free Rotisserie Chicken? Not Always

rotisserie chicken
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You'd think that the rotisserie chickens sold in grocery stores should be gluten-free, but most are not.

The culprit here can be a light dusting of flour on the skin of the bird to make it crisper, gluten ingredients in the spices, rub, or sauce used, or even just gluten cross-contamination in cooking and packaging (many stores cook and sell fried chicken right alongside their rotisserie chickens).

To stay gluten-free:

  • Only purchase rotisserie chicken from a store that labels it "gluten-free." Costco and Sam's Club are two gluten-free options if you have a membership.
  • Try Boston Market's rotisserie chicken instead of a grocery store version. It's labeled "gluten-free," and you can pick up some gluten-free side dishes while you're there.

Getting Gluten-Free Deli Meat and Cheese

woman at deli counter
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It's a gluten-free urban myth that many deli meats contain outright gluten ingredients as fillers. In the vast majority of cases, deli meats (and cheeses) are made with gluten-free ingredients.

However, that doesn't mean you can safely order deli products sliced to order at the counter. Some deli products carry a significant risk of gluten cross-contamination in processing. In addition, you're at risk for plenty of gluten cross-contamination in the deli, due to the fact that the slicing machines aren't cleaned more than once or twice a day, and lots of sandwiches are made in the deli.

To stay gluten-free:

  • Purchase packaged meats that are marked "gluten-free," and stick with pre-packaged sliced cheeses (the vast majority of cheese brands are safe)
  • If you must get meat sliced for you from the deli case, buy a brand that's labeled "gluten-free," such as Boar's Head, and ask the staff to use a clean machine.

Eating Gluten-Free at the Soup and Salad Bar

salad bar
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Those supermarket-based soup and salad bars can look so tempting: they contain fresh, healthy food for a meal that requires little effort on your part. You might convince yourself that you can choose the obviously gluten-free items, and leave the gluten-y foods behind.

It's true that you might get away with picking and choosing among the options, but the risk of gluten cross-contamination is pretty high. It's so easy for someone to drop a crouton in the (otherwise gluten-free) ranch dressing, or to dribble a bit of tabbouleh into the quinoa.

To stay gluten-free:

  • Choose items that are obviously gluten-free, such as lettuce and raw vegetables.
  • Avoid items that are immediately next-door to gluten-containing items, such as potato salad next to the macaroni salad.
  • Skip the soup unless it's clearly labeled "gluten-free."
  • Stick with salad bars in grocery stores that label items "gluten-free" or "no gluten ingredients." Wegmans, a chain in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, does this (and Wegmans sushi is gluten-free).

Packaged Cheese May Not Be Gluten-Free

packaged cheese for sale
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Most cheese is naturally gluten-free, and people who follow the gluten-free diet can eat it unless they're also sensitive to casein (a milk protein) or other milk-based ingredients. However, you should avoid cheese that's been packaged in the supermarket.

The reason? Most stores have the deli counter package cheese, and it can be cut up on the same surfaces used to make deli sandwiches. 

To stay gluten-free:

  • Talk to deli staff about where they cut up the larger portions of cheese into smaller quantities. If this takes place in the same space as sandwiches are made, steer clear.
  • Avoid packages that are sealed with thin plastic wrap and secured on the back with a store-printed label. Purchase only packages that are shrink-wrapped (shrink-wrapping occurs off-site in most instances), and confirm with store workers that the cheese was not packaged in the store.

Bulk Bins: A Huge Cross-Contamination Risk

food in bulk bins
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It's so tempting to buy products out of the bulk bins in supermarkets, health food stores, and co-ops—the items generally are much less expensive than packaged goods.

But bulk bins hold special risks for people who need to follow a gluten-free diet. Customers share scoops between the bins (so you might be scooping almonds with a tool that previously was used for whole wheat flour), and sometimes the store workers don't properly clean out bins used for one item before repurposing it for another .

To stay gluten-free:

  • Avoid products in store bulk bins entirely.
  • If you want to buy gluten-free nuts or grains in bulk, consider ordering them online from an outlet that clearly marks them "gluten-free."

Watch Out for Meat Counter Hazards

butcher counter
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 Some supermarkets—especially upscale, more "gourmet"-type stores—display their meats in glass-fronted, refrigerated display cases. In most cases, those display cases don't just contain plain meats, they also include gourmet items such as stuffed chicken breasts, meatloaf mixes, marinated beef kebobs, and pre-breaded fish filets.

That's where gluten can creep in. As someone who follows the gluten-free diet, you're not going to purchase a chicken breast stuffed with bread crumbs... but the risk is that a stray breadcrumb will make its way next door to your plain chicken breast, or that the marinade used will contain a splash of wheat-based soy sauce.

Some butcher counters are better than others in mitigating this cross-contamination risk by separating prepared items from plain items with shields and barriers. Still, you'll need to be careful.

To stay gluten-free:

  • Be aware of the risk and choose your meats and fish carefully, steering clear of those that are placed next to gluten-containing items.
  • Consider buying only pre-packaged meats (even if this means frequenting a different grocery store).

A Word From Verywell

The gluten-free diet is complicated and carries a steep learning curve, so don't beat yourself up if you didn't know these sources of hidden gluten in the supermarket.

As you can see, it pays to be vigilant, and to question everything on the shelves, particularly foods that are processed or packaged right there in the store.

Not all store-packaged and store-prepared foods are problematic. Cut-up fruits and vegetables, for example, turn out to be quite safe, mostly because they're generally packaged in the produce section, far from bread crumbs in the deli and gluten marinades in the butcher department.

When in doubt about a particular product, ask to speak to the department manager. That person should have some training in allergens, and should have an understanding of the particular risks in that department.

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