Is Rice Gluten-Free? Safe Rices and What To Avoid

Can you always trust rice when you're following the gluten-free diet?

Five different types of rice, all gluten-free. Getty Images/Riou

In most cases, yes: rice is gluten-free. Plain rice — regardless of whether it's whole-grain brown rice, polished white rice, long-grained basmati rice or even exotic black rice — is always considered gluten-free, assuming it's been protected from gluten cross-contamination in processing and cooking. (I share more about the safest brands of rice below.)

But you need to beware of flavored rice mixes since these can contain gluten ingredients, and often do.

(Again, I share more about which ones to avoid below.)

Surprisingly, the type of rice called glutinous rice, also known as sticky rice or sweet rice, is gluten-free. Despite the name, it doesn't contain the form of gluten that's dangerous to those of us with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity; the term "glutinous" simply refers to the fact that glutinous rice gets glue-like, or sticky when cooked.

Safest Brands of Rice When Avoiding Gluten

While plain rice from most any manufacturer will be fine for you if you're not particularly sensitive to trace gluten, those who do experience frequent glutenings due to cross-contamination may want to stick with certain brands or types.

  • Lundberg Family Farms markets plain rice in a wide variety of flavors, plus rice mixes. The company specializes in organic, gluten-free products, and prominently labels its products "gluten-free." Lundberg produces only rice products, which means there's no risk of gluten cross-contamination in food production. We use this brand of rice at home.
  • Alter Eco, which specializes in exotic sustainable foods, offers several types of rice that are certified gluten-free, which means special care has been taken to avoid any contact with gluten in farming and production. At this writing, Alter Eco listed Khao Deng Ruby Red Rice, Thai Sticky Purple Rice and Hom Mali Jasmine Rice as gluten-free options.
  • If you can't find Lundberg or Alter Eco in your area and don't want to order online, you might want to consider looking for rice that's grown and bagged in Thailand, where little wheat is grown. This seems to lessen the chances of cross-contamination. In fact, Alter Eco's rice is grown in Thailand.

Flavored Rice Mixes: Mostly Avoid!

You'd think something billed as "rice" would be gluten-free no matter what (and in fact, I've seen many pronouncements to this end). But flavored rice products sold along with plain rice in supermarkets frequently contain gluten-based ingredients, generally in the form of a wheat-based thickener such as hydrolyzed wheat protein or a flavor enhancer like wheat-based soy sauce.

You should avoid flavored mixes from these brands, all of which use gluten ingredients:

  • Uncle Ben's flavored rice
  • Knorr Rice Sides
  • Rice A Roni
  • Near East Rice Pilaf (contains wheat-based pasta)

Mahatma Rice lists three flavored rice varieties — Spanish rice, broccoli and cheese, and long grain and wild rice — as gluten-free on its website, but it doesn't label its packages gluten-free. Other Mahatma Rice flavors contain gluten ingredients, and they're all manufactured in the same facility.

Zatarain's (which is owned by the spice manufacturer McCormick & Company, Inc.) produces about 20 flavored rice mixes that are certified gluten-free, meaning they contain less than half the legal limit of gluten.

Be careful which package you pick up, though, because some Zatarain's flavors are not certified and still contain gluten ingredients.

Always check for gluten on food labels when you're buying flavored rice (or anything else, for that matter) to make sure the product is safe.

Sushi Rice: Not Always Safe

One last rice pitfall: If you're sensitive to vinegar derived from gluten grains, you should watch out for the rice used in Japanese restaurants to prepare sushi — it almost always contains a grain-based vinegar. I was glutened very badly by grain vinegar used in sushi rice at a Japanese restaurant, and now know to avoid the rice or to ask the restaurant for plain rice instead.

(More on this: How To Order Sushi Gluten-Free)

If you can't find a prepared rice dish that's both gluten-free and tasty, you can try making your own. Here's a great recipe for gluten-free wild rice with mushrooms, tomatoes, and cheddar cheese. In addition, many forms of Spanish paella are naturally gluten-free — but you'll need to double-check the ingredients and make substitutions as necessary.

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