Is Sushi Gluten Free?

What Sushi Can You Eat When You Are Gluten Free?

Sushi

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Not all sushi is gluten free. Sushi that contains surimi (fake crab meat), tempura, or anything made with soy sauce or a marinade is not safe on the gluten-free diet. It's also possible for wasabi and for the vinegar used to make the sushi rice to contain gluten.

If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you need to make sure the sushi you order is safe for you to eat. Sushi can represent a real go-to restaurant meal that's perfectly safe...provided you know how to order gluten-free sushi.

You may think sushi is safe because it's made up of just fish, rice, and vegetables, which all are naturally gluten free. But there are lots of places gluten can creep into your sushi. Regular soy sauce, for example, contains wheat, and surimi frequently is made from wheat starch. While it's not difficult to work with a sushi restaurant and chef to avoid gluten-based ingredients, you do have to know which specific ingredients to avoid.

Sushi That Contains Gluten

California rolls—especially those that come from supermarkets or less expensive "fast food" sushi-type outlets—almost always contain surimi or fake crab instead of real crab. This imitation crab is made by grinding white fish, binding it with starch and other ingredients, and then flavoring so that it resembles real crab meat.

Unfortunately, the "starch and other ingredients" used to make surimi almost always contains wheat. This places most California rolls (and any other sushi rolls that include surimi) on the "avoid" list for people who are gluten free, unless you know for certain that they're made with gluten-free ingredients.

Note that many sushi restaurants do not know surimi contains wheat, so you'll need to double-check all ingredients in a multi-ingredient roll. Don't take a chance on surimi unless you know for sure the sushi restaurant is experienced in providing gluten-free sushi.

In addition to surimi, beware of sushi rolls that include tempura-dipped vegetables and meats. Tempura batter almost always is made with wheat flour. Fortunately, tempura-based sushi roll ingredients are pretty easy to identify and avoid, since they have a distinct coated and fried appearance. Some gluten-free-friendly restaurants use a gluten-free batter to make their tempura—these should be prominently labeled "gluten-free."

Sushi With Marinated Ingredients

Some sushi rolls include marinated fish—most commonly unagi (freshwater eel) but also salmon and tuna. Virtually all of these marinades contain soy sauce or teriyaki sauce (which, in turn, has soy sauce as an ingredient).

Most soy sauce contains wheat and is not gluten free. Therefore, you'll need to steer clear of any sushi prepared with a marinade or sauce unless you know for certain it was prepared with gluten-free soy sauce.

You'll also need to watch out for wasabi, the eye-watering green paste that adds a major kick to your sushi. Many sushi restaurants (especially in the United States) don't use real wasabi; instead, they use a mixture of horseradish, mustard, and other ingredients (including green food coloring). Occasionally, these other ingredients can include wheat starch. This is not common, but it does happen.

To guard against this, you should ask the restaurant to let you review the ingredients of its chosen wasabi product—or better yet, bring a small container of your own 100% real wasabi. You can purchase real powdered wasabi root at Asian grocery stores, or order it online; Sushi Sonic and Pacific Farms are two manufacturers.

Is Rice Vinegar Gluten Free?

If you react to gluten grain-derived vinegars (as some people do), be aware that the rice used to make sushi almost always is seasoned with sushi vinegar. This vinegar most often is distilled from rice, but it occasionally can include distilled gluten grains.

If vinegar is a problem for you, consider asking the chef to make your sushi with plain rice from the kitchen. Even though regular rice doesn't roll as neatly, most sushi chefs will oblige.

How to Order Gluten-Free Sushi

From a gluten cross-contamination standpoint, sushi restaurants actually are quite safe—you can sit there at the sushi bar and watch the chef prepare your food, and unless the restaurant makes tons of tempura sushi, the sushi preparation area usually is free from gluten, except for the soy sauce.

When dining out at a sushi restaurant, ask the server to let the sushi chef know you're extremely allergic to soy sauce, and so to avoid contact with any sauces or marinades that might contain soy sauce when making your order.

Also, consider ordering sashimi instead of sushi (always ask if there's anything that's been in a marinade on a sashimi platter), and bring your own gluten-free soy sauce and wasabi. Many gluten-free-friendly Japanese restaurants stock gluten-free soy sauce for their customers.

A Word From Verywell

Even though there are numerous places that gluten can sneak into a sushi dinner, it's actually pretty simple to get a safe gluten-free meal at a sushi restaurant. It's more difficult to get safe sushi at a supermarket sushi bar, but note that Wegmans supermarkets have made all their sushi gluten free.

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Article Sources
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  1. Celiac Disease Foundation. Sources of Gluten.

  2. Celiac Disease Foundation. Dining and Social Eating.