Find out if sushi is gluten-free, what ingredients to stay away from, and what the safest options are for a gluten-free diet.
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If you’re a sushi lover and getting started with a gluten-free diet, you may be wondering what you can enjoy from sushi restaurants while still avoiding gluten. There are so many ingredients in sushi, that it can be hard to determine what’s safe and what’s not.
In this post, we’re going to talk about all things related to sushi and how you can still enjoy your favorite cuisine without accidentally eating gluten and getting sick.
Find out what types of sushi are gluten-free, the ingredients you’ll want to be aware of, and get answers to some FAQs about specific ingredients and types of sushi. This post is here to help you get a full picture of what’s safe and what you’ll want to avoid next time you’re ordering from a sushi restaurant or getting sushi takeout.
I’ll do my best to be as comprehensive as possible, so you have a full view of what to expect when it comes to finding gluten-free sushi options.
Before we dive into the details of what to order and what to avoid, let’s make sure we know the basics of gluten and how it shows up in food.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in most wheat products, and acts as the “glue” that helps to hold wheat, barley, kamut, spelt, farro, durum, bulgur, rye, and semolina together to maintain their shape.
You can find gluten in whole grains, but also in many processed foods as well. Many processed foods have hidden gluten in them in the form or gluten or wheat derivatives. These are also in the form of flavorings, binders to keep ingredients together, or other additives.
What is cross contamination?
Cross contamination is when a food may not contain gluten, but comes into contact with gluten, leaving trace amounts of gluten on the naturally gluten-free food.
This can happen both while food is being processed at a manufacturing facility, and also while the food is being prepared at home or at a restaurant.
For example, rice may be gluten-free naturally, but when it is processed in the same facility as wheat grains, there’s a chance for cross contamination to occur.
Another example is that rice is naturally gluten-free, but when it’s being prepared next to ingredients that contain gluten, that rice can become contaminated with gluten from the neighboring ingredients.
Keep this in mind as we talk more about how safe sushi is for a gluten-free diet, and how it’s going to affect where and how you order from restaurants.
What are the types of sushi?
There are a few main types of sushi that you’re like to find at sushi restaurants. While it’s not necessarily easy to say that one type is gluten-free or not, it’s a good idea to understand what the different types are so that you know what goes into them, and where gluten might show up in each of them.
Sashimi is seafood, served without any other ingredients. Since sashimi is served plain, as long as the fish is not marinated in a sauce made with gluten-containing ingredients, this will be safe for a gluten-free diet.
Fish and seafood is naturally gluten-free as long as it is enjoyed as close to nature as possible, without added ingredients, including raw and smoked seafood made without a marinade.
Nigiri is raw fish served over sushi rice. If the vinegar used in the sushi rice is gluten-free, then this is safe for a gluten-free diet. Read later on in the post about gluten and sushi rice.
Maki rolls are what most people think of when they hear the term sushi, with seafood, vegetables, and rice rolled up inside a nori wrapper. Maki rolls can be made gluten-free, as long as there’s no gluten in the sauce or other ingredients added to them.
Be aware of imitation crab and imitation wasabi in this type of sushi, as these ingredients contain gluten.
Uramaki rolls are similar to maki rolls, but the rice is on the outside of the roll as opposed to the nori. Nori is still incorporated into the roll, but it’s wrapped around the filling instead of the rice. These types of rolls can be gluten-free or not, depending on the ingredients used.
This is a hand-rolled sushi, where the ingredients are added to a cone and eaten. It is similar to other types of sushi, but again, be aware that the ingredients being added are all gluten-free before ordering.
What types of sushi are gluten-free?
We can’t easily say that certain types of sushi are always gluten-free, but we can look at each type individually, talk about what they’re made of, and if and when they may contain gluten.
Out of all the different types of sushi, the one we can say for certain is gluten-free is sashimi. This is naturally gluten-free as there are no other ingredients than fresh fish.
Nigiri may or may not be gluten-free, depending on the vinegar that’s added to the sushi rice. If it’s gluten-free rice vinegar, then this is a safe option.
Maki rolls, uramaki rolls, and temaki
All three of these options may or may not be gluten-free, depending on the ingredients included in each of them. Unfortunately, it’s not as straightforward as saying “yes” or “no” to each of these being gluten-free or not, but entirely dependent on what’s included in the rolls.
What sushi ingredients are gluten-free?
Let’s walk through the ingredients you might find in the different types of sushi options to help you determine if your favorite sushi orders are gluten-free.
King crab, salmon, or other fresh fish
While imitation crab likely contains gluten, fresh crab is safe for a gluten-free diet. It needs to be fresh with no added sauces or marinades added to it to be considered gluten-free.
Any sushi with fresh seafood is safe for a gluten-free diet, assuming there is no soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, wasabi, or other sauces or marinades added to them.
Nori is naturally gluten-free as the only ingredient is seaweed. This is safe for a gluten-free diet.
All vegetables are naturally gluten-free. When served fresh, meaning no sauces, vinegars, or marinades added to them, vegetables are all safe when found in sushi.
Masago, tobiko, and other roe
These fish roe are all naturally gluten-free, so sushi with this ingredient are safe to enjoy as long as the other ingredients in the sushi are also gluten-free.
Sushi rice can be gluten-free when rice vinegar is used to make it. Sometimes distilled white vinegar is used, and some folks who are gluten-free can react to this ingredient as it can be made from gluten-containing grains.
Ask the server what vinegar is used before ordering any sushi with rice.
Sushi that may contain gluten
There are a number of places that gluten shows up in sushi. Let’s talk about the types of sushi and ingredients you’ll want to avoid if you’re following a gluten-free diet.
California rolls that use imitation crab are not gluten-free. Imitation crab (surimi) uses gluten as a binder making this sushi filling not gluten-free. I’d steer clear of this option unless you know for certain that it’s made with gluten-free ingredients.
Spicy rolls, like spicy tuna or spicy salmon rolls can have hidden gluten from wasabi. Imitation wasabi, a common ingredient in many sushi restaurants, is sometimes made with gluten. Find out from your server if the spicy rolls are made from pure wasabi or an imitation wasabi.
When you think of rice, you may think that this is easily gluten-free, right? Well, not really. While the rice in sushi rice is gluten-free, the vinegar that is added to it may not be.
Vinegar is often made from corn or wheat as its base. If the vinegar is based from wheat, the sushi rice will not be gluten-free. Rice vinegar is gluten-free, and sushi rice can be enjoyed when this is what is used.
Ask what kind of vinegar is used on the rice to find out if there is any hidden gluten in this ingredient.
Sushi with imitation crab is something you’ll want to steer clear of. This ingredient is often made with gluten, making it not a good option for a gluten-free diet.
Sushi with marinated ingredients
Most sushi with marinated ingredients contain soy sauce or teriyaki sauce. Both of these sauces are known to contain wheat, making them not safe for a gluten-free diet.
If the soy sauce is tamari soy sauce and the teriyaki sauce is made with tamari and not traditional Chinese soy sauce, then this may be okay. Again, you’ll want to be careful with any sauces.
Soy sauce and other sauces
Traditional Chinese soy sauce is made with wheat, making it not a good option for a gluten-free diet. Other sauces made with soy sauce base should also be avoided.
Japanese tamari soy sauce does not contain wheat and is considered safe for a gluten-free diet. If the restaurant you visit uses tamari soy sauce, you can use this without issue.
Although most restaurants don’t advertise on their menu that they use imitation wasabi, this is something you’ll want to be aware of on a gluten-free diet. Most imitation wasabi contains gluten and is a no-go for folks avoiding gluten.
Anything fried, including tempura
Tempura batter is made with wheat flour. You will want to avoid any sushi that has tempura fried vegetables or other ingredients.
It’s possible to find restaurants with gluten-free tempura, but make sure that even these restaurants use a dedicated gluten-free fryer so there’s no potential for cross contamination.
Sushi appetizers and gluten
There are a few common appetizers you may like to order at sushi restaurants. Let’s go over if these are gluten-free and what you need to know about them.
Edamame served at sushi restaurants is usually steamed, making it a good option for a gluten-free diet. Be aware of any sauces or seasonings that are added after it’s cooked and gluten in these.
Gyoza, or potstickers, almost always contain gluten in the wrapper. The wrapper is a basic dough that’s usually made with wheat flour. I’d avoid this option on a gluten-free diet.
Vegetable and shrimp tempura
Tempura contains wheat flour, so any type of vegetables that are breaded and fried are not a safe option for a gluten-free diet.
Miso paste that’s used to make miso soup may or may not be gluten-free, depending on the grains that are added to the miso. If the miso paste contains wheat, barley, rye, or other gluten-containing grains, you’ll know this soup isn’t a good option for your gluten-free diet.
Common questions about sushi and gluten
Now that we’ve covered the types of sushi and ingredients, let’s talk about some common questions as it relates to sushi and gluten.
We’ll specifically talk about your favorite sushi orders and ingredients to help you make informed decisions about what to ask for.
Are California rolls gluten-free?
California rolls sometimes contain imitation crab, making this a tricky option for folks who follow a gluten-free diet. If you can be assured that the crab in the California rolls is fresh, not imitation, then this is a safe choice. Otherwise, you may want to steer clear.
Are summer rolls gluten-free?
Summer rolls are most commonly made with rice noodles, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, herbs, and shrimp or pork, but they can be made with any fresh vegetables and meat that you like. All these ingredients are then wrapped in a rice-paper wrapper.
Summer rolls on their own are gluten-free, assuming the shrimp, pork, or other protein hasn’t been made with any sauce or seasonings that contain gluten.
The place where gluten may come in is in the dipping sauce. Peanut sauce is usually made with soy sauce, which contains wheat. Hoisin sauce is another popular dipping sauce used, and this also contains wheat.
Is Tobiko gluten-free?
Tobiko is naturally gluten-free and can safely be enjoyed on sushi on a gluten-free diet.
Is sushi dairy-free?
A lot of sushi is dairy-free, which might be of interest to you if you are also avoiding dairy in addition to gluten in your diet.
Imitation crab meat can contain dairy. Some sushi contains cream cheese, which also contains dairy.
Is wasabi gluten-free?
Imitation wasabi, a common ingredient in many sushi restaurants, is sometimes made with gluten. Find out from your server if the spicy rolls are made from pure wasabi or an imitation wasabi.
Is spicy tuna gluten-free?
The “spice” in “spicy tuna” is what you’ll want to look out for. Many spicy tuna rolls use imitation wasabi, which sometimes is made with gluten. Find out if the spicy tuna uses pure wasabi or imitation wasabi before ordering.
Is imitation crab gluten-free?
Imitation crab is made with white fish that is ground up with gluten-containing starch to make it look like crab meat. This is an ingredient that you’ll want to avoid on a gluten-free diet.
Is rice vinegar gluten-free?
Rice vinegar is gluten-free and can be used in gluten-free cooking as long as rice is the only grain used to make the vinegar. If any other grains or ingredients are added to the vinegar, you’ll want to be sure those are gluten-free as well.
Some people who follow a gluten-free diet react to vinegar even if there is a gluten-free label on the bottle. If this is you, avoid this ingredient and sushi that contains rice vinegar.
Is nori gluten-free?
Nori is simply dried seaweed and is naturally gluten-free, as long as it is plain nori and no other ingredients than seaweed are in the ingredient list.
Does spicy mayo have gluten?
Most spicy mayo is made with mayonnaise and sriracha sauce. Both of these are gluten-free and safe to enjoy. As long as the spicy mayo you’re using doesn’t have any extra ingredients, this should be a safe choice for a gluten-free diet.
Sushi prep and cross contamination
In the beginning of this post, we touched on the idea of cross contamination. This is when a naturally gluten-free ingredient comes into contact with an ingredient that contains gluten.
When this happens, sometimes traces of gluten can make their way onto the surface of this gluten-free food. Folks who are extremely sensitive or allergic to gluten wind up getting sick when eating this contaminated food.
Since most sushi restaurants and prep counters use gluten-containing ingredients, there is a likelihood that cross contamination will occur.
Unless there is a separate and dedicated area where gluten-free sushi is prepared, you’ll want to know that if the prep counter is sanitized, and that all knives and utensils are dedicated for use on gluten-free sushi only.
All gluten-free ingredients should also be stored in a separate area of the kitchen with lids so they are well-contained to ensure there is no potential for cross contamination from other nearby gluten-containing foods.
I realize how overwhelming it is to think about the likelihood of this happening at a restaurant. It feels like practically a zero chance that you’re going to find a setup like this. However, it’s important to know the risks involved and what a “perfect” scenario might look like.
To understand the likelihood of being “glutened” at a sushi restaurant, it’s helpful to know the full scope of what to expect and what the ingredients are that you’ll want to be aware of.
How to order gluten-free sushi
To order gluten-free sushi from a restaurant, make sure each of the ingredients used are gluten-free. Stick with sashimi and simple rolls that have naturally gluten-free ingredients like fresh seafood and vegetables.
It’s a good idea to talk to your server and explain your needs for sticking with a gluten-free diet before you start ordering. It can be tricky communicating about your food allergies or food intolerances, but do your best to explain your gluten-free needs with a waiter or server.
Try to speak with someone who speaks your language fluently and you can communicate your requests.
Ask the server to point out the gluten-free options and ask any questions you may have about specific ingredients, like whether fresh or imitation crab is used, if the wasabi is pure or imitation, what vinegar is used in the sushi rice, and if it’s okay to use your own gluten-free soy sauce from home.
Don’t be afraid to pack your own condiments, like tamari soy sauce and wasabi if you find a sushi restaurant near you that will accommodate this request.
Finally, know what options are safe and available at the restaurant you’re visiting. Stick with the basics – fresh seafood, vegetables, and rice (if they use rice vinegar) for your sushi and avoid anything with soy sauce, marinades, or imitation wasabi.
Is sushi gluten-free?
Some is and some isn’t. The bottom line is that you’ll want to know exactly what ingredients are in the types of sushi you’re ordering and the level of sensitivity that you have to traces of gluten showing up in your food.
Some sushi ingredients will need to be avoided entirely, while others will be safe as long as you talk to your server or go to reputable restaurants where food allergies and intolerances are taken seriously.
My best advice is to look at restaurant menus ahead of time to plan what you can order and have some questions in your mind before you get there to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
If you love sushi and have been looking for answers as to what to order and what to avoid, I hope this post has helped you. It’s tricky to navigate restaurants with gluten allergies and intolerances, but not impossible! Use this information to help you enjoy this delicious cuisine without having to risk your gluten-free diet.