French fries are everywhere, but are they gluten free?
From restaurant menus, grocery store freezers, and even some school cafeterias, chances are you’ve come across at least one french fry over the course of your life. (If you haven't, I'm very sorry. Run out and get some right after you read this post!)
If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you might be wondering if you can snag a french fry off of your loved one’s plate…
The answer is: it depends.
What are french fries made of?
French fries are made by slicing potatoes and deep frying them in oil. Simply delicious, if you ask me!
Basic french fries that you make at home would be 100% gluten free, since both potatoes and oil are naturally gluten free. The situation gets tricky depending on where you are getting your french fries from, how they are cooked, and if anything has been added to them.
Are potatoes gluten free?
Yes, potatoes are naturally gluten free. They are a vegetable and vegetables do not contain gluten.
Gluten is the protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, as well as a few other grains (bulgur, couscous, spelt, and kamut).
Are packaged french fries gluten free?
French fries purchased at the grocery store in the freezer section could be gluten free, but it depends on the ingredients. Since french fries are basically sliced potatoes and oil, one would think they should be naturally gluten free. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
Wheat can be added as a coating on the fries in order to crisp them up when baked. Since wheat contains gluten, any french fries that have these types of coatings present would not be gluten free.
Be sure to check the product packaging to determine what ingredients are used in the french fries. Look for the warning statements regarding the presence of gluten in the product.
Are restaurant french fries gluten free?
French fries ordered at a restaurant could be gluten free, but it all depends on the ingredients AND the way they are prepared. (Double whammy.)
First, you’ll need to ask if the french fries contain any coatings or any extra ingredients that may contain gluten. If the answer is no, ask how the french fries are cooked.
Restaurant french fries are traditionally cooked in a deep fryer, which can be contaminated with gluten if it has been used to cook another food that had gluten containing ingredients in it (like chicken fingers or churros).
There’s a rumour going around that the heat from the deep fryer changes the structure of the gluten protein and it’s safe for people with celiac disease. While it’s true that heat changes the structure of proteins, it’s NOT true that a deep fryer used for gluten foods is safe for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Even a malformed gluten protein will still cause problems in your gut.
Additionally, you’ll want to ask how the food is handled in the restaurant kitchen. If your gluten free food ends up on the same plate as something containing gluten, it could become cross contaminated and is not safe to eat.
Restaurant french fries are only considered gluten free if they do not contain any gluten ingredients, are fried in a dedicated gluten free deep fryer AND haven’t been cross contaminated.
What is cross contamination?
The Merriam-Webster definition of cross-contamination is as follows: “inadvertent transfer of bacteria or other contaminants from one surface, substance, etc., especially because of unsanitary handling procedures.”
Based on that definition, cross contamination sounds pretty self-explanatory, right? In our case, the 'contaminant' is gluten.
If the kitchen staff at the restaurant cooks your french fries in a dedicated deep fryer, but then piles them beside a stack of gluten-y chicken fingers - those french fries can be considered cross contaminated. They are unsafe to eat for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Things to ask at a restaurant
If you want to eat french fries at a restaurant, but aren’t sure if they are gluten free, here are a few good questions to ask:
- “Do you have a separate deep fryer that’s designated for gluten free items?”
If the answer is no, avoid the french fries and anything else on the menu that might be deep-fried - even if it’s labelled as gluten-free on the menu. (Yes, I’ve sadly seen that.)
- “How are gluten free meals prepared?"
The aim of this question is to determine if the restaurant staff wash their utensils, pots, and pans prior to preparing your meal and if cutting boards and/or prep surfaces are shared. You’ll know your risk of gluten cross contamination based on their response.
Make sure your condiments are gluten free, too!
This is a word of warning based on my personal experience at a restaurant - always check to make sure the condiments you’re eating with your gluten free french fries are actually gluten free too!
After painstakingly determining the french fries I wanted to order were gluten free and handled safely - I was almost once served a homemade ketchup that contained malt vinegar! (Malt is not gluten free). Whoops!
Always check your labels if preparing food at home and always ask questions if you’re ordering from a restaurant. If you’re ever unsure, use my personal motto in these cases:
When in doubt, go without.
Feeling hungry for french fries?
If you're feeling hungry for french fries after reading this post, hop on over to this Easy Gluten Free Gravy recipe. Find yourself some cheese curds and make yourself a truly Canadian poutine. It's the best, eh?!