Is Sushi Gluten-Free?

Eating Gluten-Free and Ordering Sushi? Don't Make These Mistakes!

where can gluten hide in sushi?
Don't make these gluten-free sushi mistakes!. Getty Images/Yuji Kotani

If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, sushi can represent a real go-to meal out that's perfectly safe ... provided you order gluten-free sushi.

Wait a minute, you're probably thinking: sushi is just fish and rice. What's not gluten-free about that?

Plenty of things, as it turns out. As with anything involving the gluten-free diet, the devil is in the details — and the details in sushi's case involve soy sauce-based marinades, faux crab meat and even the sushi rice itself.

Fortunately, you can avoid those pitfalls and order a safe gluten-free sushi meal. Here's where you can find hidden gluten in sushi ... and how to avoid it.

Major Sources of Gluten in Sushi: Fake Crab and Tempura

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

Unfortunately, the "starch and other ingredients" in surimi almost always contain wheat, placing most California rolls (and any other sushi rolls that include surimi) on the "avoid" list for those of us who are gluten-free. 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.

In addition to surimi, you also need to beware of tempura sushi — 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.

Additional Gluten Issues: Marinades and Wasabi

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, of course, 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). Although I haven't run across any wheat-containing wasabi myself, I've heard enough reports from others to know that it's lurking out there.

To guard against this, you should ask the restaurant to let you review the ingredients of the wasabi in use ... 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.

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.

I was badly glutened once by sushi vinegar that contained barley, and so I now either ask the sushi place to make my order with plain rice in place of sushi rice, or I order sashimi (plain fish) instead of sushi when I visit a sushi bar.

Gluten Cross-Contamination: Not An Issue with Sushi?

From a gluten cross-contamination standpoint, I actually find sushi restaurants quite reassuring — 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 prep area usually is nicely gluten-free.

When dining out at a sushi restaurant, I honestly take few of my usual precautions (detailed here: Five Rules To Follow for Safe Gluten-Free Restaurant Dining). Instead, I generally just ask the server to let the sushi chef know I'm extremely allergic to soy sauce, and so to avoid contact with any sauces or marinades when making my order.

As I said above, I'll often order sashimi instead of sushi (always ask if there's anything that's been in a marinade on a sashimi platter). I'll also bring my own gluten-free soy sauce and wasabi (although many Japanese restaurants now are stocking gluten-free soy sauce for their customers).

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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