Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It’s found in a large number of different foods — even ones that you wouldn’t expect, like soy sauce and potato chips.
Gluten-free foods are becoming more available and accessible, including at restaurants. Even fast food restaurants are offering gluten-free options on their menu. (It’s important to note that there’s always a risk of cross-contamination, though.) Let’s take a look at 12 of the most popular fast food restaurants and their gluten-free offerings.
On a list of fast food restaurants, how could we not start with McDonalds? As it turns out, you can get any of their burgers gluten-free if you skip the bun and opt to have it wrapped in lettuce instead. You’ll have to skip the special sauce on their Big Macs.
Other gluten-free items include:
- several of their salads
- McFlurry with M&M’s
- Fruit ’N Yogurt Parfait
While the gluten-free menu items are a great start, the risk of cross contamination is high due to the fast work pace and close proximity with gluten.
Burger King is clear on their site: While there is some food that is gluten-free alone, cross-contamination is likely. If you’re willing to take the (very high) risk, however, you can get a Whopper without the bun, in addition to the Grilled Chicken Sandwich. You can also get their Garden Fresh Salad and some soft-serve ice cream with hot fudge, caramel sauce, or strawberry sauce.
If you have a serious gluten sensitivity or allergy, Burger King probably isn’t the best choice.
Wendy’s is similar to the first two restaurants we’ve covered. You can get a gluten-free burger without the bun, and several of their salads without the chicken and croutons would work as well. The number of gluten-free sides is more impressive than the options at the first two restaurants, however. These include their chili and a wide range of baked potatoes and toppings. Best of all? The Frosty is gluten-free, too.
Wendy’s has more gluten-free options than McDonald’s and Burger King, and information about cross-contamination on their website shows that they are aware of the reality of gluten-free cooking.
Chick-fil-A offers several different gluten-free items on their menu. According to Gluten-Free Living, Chick-fil-A’s Waffle Potato Fries are cooked in separate oil than their breaded chicken. The fries are cooked in canola oil, and their breaded chicken is cooked in peanut oil. Their grilled chicken and grilled chicken nuggets (not the breaded ones) are also gluten-free.
Despite this, Chick-fil-A is not a gluten-free environment, so the risk of cross-contamination is high.
Despite the fact that their full name includes the word “Bread,” Panera has a number of gluten-free options available. Their sandwiches are out, but you can get a number of their soups and salads, without croutons and the side of bread. Good options include:
- Greek Salad
- Fuji Apple Salad
- Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa
- Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken
- Baked Potato Soup
- Black Bean Soup
- a variety of steel cut oatmeals
- Greek Yogurt with Mixed Berries
Panera even has two gluten-free desserts: a triple chocolate cookie with walnuts and a coconut macaroon.
Panera is one of the most gluten-free friendly options on this list. Just make sure you’re very clear while placing your order that you need your items to be gluten-free.
While you can’t go in for a full-on burrito, you can indulge in a Chipotle burrito bowl or the corn tortillas. Choose your rice, meat, beans, and all the fixings, without the flour tortilla. You can even eat the tortilla chips and salsa and guacamole. The only things off limits are the flour tortillas themselves.
Overall, because you can see the food being made and the assembly-line nature of preparation, Chipotle is one of the more truly gluten-free restaurants on this list.
It’s important to note that a disclaimer on Taco Bell’s site states that they are not a gluten-free environment and can’t guarantee that any of their food will actually be truly free of gluten.
That said, they do offer several items that do not have gluten in themselves, including:
- Spicy Tostada
- hash browns
- black beans and rice
- Pintos N Cheese
If you’re avoiding gluten when possible as a choice, Taco Bell could be an occasional indulgence. But if you have an actual sensitivity or allergy, it’s best to skip it to be safe.
The gluten-free options at Arby’s are extremely limited. Most of their meats — including their Angus steak, corned beef, and brisket — are gluten-free, but only without the buns. The fries themselves are gluten-free, but they’re cooked in the same oil that contains gluten. Your best bet for an item that feels complete is their Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad.
Overall, this is not the most gluten-free fast food option on this list.
Sonic has a decent number of gluten-free offerings. Because their fries and tater tots are cooked in the same oil as breaded products, these won’t work, but their grilled foods are considered to be gluten-free, including:
- hamburgers (no buns)
- breakfast sausage
- hot dogs (no buns)
- Philly steak
Their ice cream may also be gluten-free.
The small kitchen size and the short training associated with fast food restaurants would likely result in high risk for cross-contamination.
Five Guys’ burgers, fries, and hot dogs — and almost all the toppings — are all gluten-free (so long as you skip the bun). The milkshakes themselves are gluten-free, too, aside from a few of the mix-ins. When you go, you just have to avoid the following items:
- malt vinegar
- fry sauce
- Oreo cookie pieces
- malted milk and cherry milkshake mix-ins
Due to the lower percentage of products that contain gluten, Five Guys may have a slightly lower risk of cross-contamination than other fast food restaurants.
KFC specializes in breaded, fried chicken, so it’s not much of a surprise that their gluten-free options are limited. The only options on the menu here are sides, including their green beans and corn.
Because not even their grilled chicken is gluten-free and the only items available are select sides, this restaurant may be best to skip.
Like KFC, Popeyes doesn’t have a ton of menu options available for gluten-free diets, and everything you can order is a side. However, their gluten-free side options are a little more robust than KFC’s. Options include their Cajun rice, red rice and beans, cole slaw, and corn on the cob.
For a place that focuses on fried breaded chicken, there are some decent options that make it a better alternative to KFC.
Can I really trust gluten-free restaurants?
With the rise in popularity of the gluten-free diet, and with more people being diagnosed with Celiac disease, more restaurants are offering gluten-free alternatives. While this is a great advancement, it’s important to note that not all gluten-free restaurant choices are created equal. Even if food is labelled “gluten-free,” the risk of cross-contamination could still be high, especially given the speed with which food is prepared.
Because of this, only trust the food at establishments you trust, and make sure you mention that the food must be gluten-free for allergy purposes. Sometimes, for example, “gluten-free fries” will be cooked in the same oil as breaded chicken, meaning it’s no longer gluten-free. Ask the cooks to change gloves and utensils, and to wash their hands to prevent cross-contamination.