When Does Ice Cream Contain Gluten?

Yes, sometimes ice cream has gluten (and not in the flavors you'd expect)

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Yes, some ice cream does contain wheat. Copyright © Jane M. Anderson

Ice cream has been one of our go-to treats ever since we began following the gluten-free diet, and it's always been hard for me to imagine someone putting gluten-containing ingredients in an ice cream flavor that doesn't absolutely require them (obviously, Oreo cookie ice cream is going to be gluten-y, but vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream don't need to be).

But an alert reader messaged me on Facebook a while back to let me know she'd been out for ice cream, and the owner of the cafe told her there's flour in virtually all the homemade ice cream selections sold at that cafe.

Flour? Really? Why would someone do this? Fortunately, the cafe owner told her before she had ordered her ice cream, but it was still disappointing... and surprising.

Good News: Plenty of Ice Creams Are Gluten-Free

Fortunately, this problem of ice cream in gluten isn't super-common: there's actually a long list of gluten-free ice cream brands and flavors.

Yes, there generally is gluten in most ice cream brands' versions of flavors like Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Brownie Chunk (although some brands that cater to gluten-free customers, like Talenti and So Delicious, make gluten-free versions of these popular gluten-y sounding flavors).

But in most cases, standard old-fashioned ice cream flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry will not contain gluten. However, there are exceptions, and those in the gluten-free community need to be aware of them.

Flour in Ice Cream Not as Uncommon as You'd Think

You'd think flour in ice cream would be an oddity...

something dreamed up by a creative chef who didn't realize that it had the potential to make some people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity truly sick. But if it was happening in one cafe, it obviously could happen elsewhere.

So I started looking at recipes for homemade ice cream and discovered that yes, some recipes do indeed call for wheat flour—usually a couple of tablespoons.

The flour is used to help thicken the mixture, especially if the recipe is for a lower-calorie (in other words, less naturally creamy) ice cream.

Obviously, even a tiny bit of wheat flour in the ice cream is way too much for us, so we'd have to give that flour-containing ice cream a pass... assuming we know about the surprise ingredient.

As it turns out, it's also important to check the labels on ice cream sold in stores—even on otherwise innocuous flavors like vanilla.

In scrutinizing the labels of store-bought ice creams—specifically, the labels of those innocuous flavors where you wouldn't expect to find gluten-containing ingredients—I've only found one brand that appears to use flour as a thickener: Blue Bell. In other brands' products, I've found gluten where I expected to find it (the aforementioned cookies and cream flavors, for example) but haven't found it in basic vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

I haven't identified any other national brands that do so (in fact, more brands are tending towards specifically labeling safe ice creams as "gluten-free" than are adding gluten ingredients to flavors that don't really require them).

But there may be some regionally distributed ice cream brands that also use this trick of adding in some wheat flour to thicken the recipe.

You Always Have to Ask. Always.

Since I heard from that Facebook reader about the cafe that uses wheat flour in its ice cream, I've routinely quizzed the owners and managers of small ice cream shops, and I've only found one (out of many) where this was an issue. (Gluten cross-contamination in otherwise gluten-free flavors is much more of an issue—learn ways to avoid that here: How to Order Ice Cream Out and Not Get Sick)

Still, my research (and that of my alert reader) shows we just can't take anything for granted. The lesson here? Never assume something is gluten-free (even something that seems like it ought to be gluten-free, like simple vanilla or chocolate ice cream) unless you actually verify the ingredients. I've always followed this advice, but I have to admit that my review of ingredients in ice cream parlors has been a little, well, cursory. Now I know we can't let down our guard for a minute.

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