Dining Out: Finding Gluten-Free Fries

by | G+ Amy Leger

There’s nothing like a pile of good, hot, salty french fries as a side with a burger or a sandwich at lunch time right? Really there is no substitute. When we celiacs go to a restaurant and servers ask us “Do you want fries with that?” We desperately want to say “Yes!” just like many other customers. But for people on the gluten-free diet, it’s rarely that simple. **This post originated in 2009, please consult with your restaurant for updated information.

The Problem with French Fries

You would think french fries should be fine for celiacs. They’re made of potatoes, which are gluten-free. Many of them start out that way. However, the way they end up can be anything BUT gluten-free. Sometimes manufacturers add a coating to potatoes which may add a flavor or a crispiness during cooking. Others add seasonings that may be questionable.

But arguably the biggest contaminant is the cooking process itself. A good portion of US restaurants make their fries inedible for celiacs because they’re fried in oil that is shared with all of the other deep fried foods, like chicken nuggets, mozzarella cheese sticks, onion rings, etc. This breading on these items contaminates the oil and as a result contaminates our perfectly gluten-free potatoes. (Side note: be careful because some places also “finish off” regular potatoes in potentially contaminated oil. This happens with the potato canoes at Timberlodge.)

Finding the Perfect Gluten-Free French Fry

I just kept wondering where you CAN get french fries that aren’t screwed up for us celiacs. So I started asking around — and here’s what I found:

McDonald’s is the top choice of the 58 celiacs who responded to my question. They are fried in a dedicated fryer.  But this one is the hard one because McDonald’s actually admits on their website that their french fries contain hydrolyzed wheat. But it appears from the rumblings of celiacs and on the internet, during the cooking process, the gluten is “cooked off”. Many people referenced this as well in their emails. I do have an email into the Gluten Intolerance Group who has worked with McDonald’s in the past on this. The group is working on a current response but I have not received it as of this posting.  However, I did find this statement from G.I.G. on the Clan Thompson website from March of 2006:

“The fries have been tested and are GF. We had also posted another link to a statement by McD on the testing but that link was removed from McD’s site in order to replace it with a different statement. We are working closely with McD. Unfortunately it is very difficult to help consumers understand the science behind the processing of flavorings.”

Our family also does McDonald’s french fries with no problems.  So are they or aren’t they?  I can’t give you a clear black-and-white answer. Hopefully I have provided some helpful information so you can choose whether McDonald’s fries are okay to eat, for you or your child.

Chick-Fil-A came in a close second! Many people recommended the restaurant’s waffle fries. They are posted on their gluten-free list.  Readers said they are fried in separate oil. Check Chick-Fil-A’s website for additional information on locations.

The next three are tied for third:
In-N-Out Burger is very popular. According to one fan, “[In-N-Out] has dedicated fryers and [they] hand-cut their potatoes at the restaurant as they use them. They have no breaded items, like chicken nuggets, on their menu, so the only thing that gets fried is potatoes.” This restaurant chain is based mostly in the southwestern US.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries is another location. They have 300 restaurants in 25 States (including St. Cloud, MN and another one coming to Edina for my Minnesota peeps). Nearly everyone who responded about them described how the French fries are made right from potatoes and they’re the only thing deep-fried in the restaurant – so no cross-contamination. What I liked was right on their home page they talk about everything in the place being gluten free except the bun. This is great! Considering I’d never heard of the company before today. For others in the same situation as me, a fellow gluten-free blogger, GF Road Warrior reviewed the restaurant.

Red Robin is a casual sit-down restaurant with a gluten-free menu. Many people said they order french fries at this restaurant. You’ll want to take note of the gluten-free menu however. There are special instructions for getting their fries gluten-free. But also on the menu it cautions you on cross-contamination:

“Plain Red Robin Steak Fries (without Red Robin Seasoning or Garlic-Parmesan Seasoning) do not contain any allergens; however, there is a risk they might be fried in a common fryer with the allergens you want to avoid.”

Other regional restaurants that have gluten-free fries: Cheeseburger in Paradise, NY Fries (in Canada), Jersey (in Chicago), 99 and Carrow’s.

As for the other big chains? Wendy’s has a gluten-free menu but french fries are not on there. I also checked in with Culvers , a popular regional fast food chain. When I inquired about the gluten-free status of their fries, this was the company’s response,

“The ingredients of our fries do not contain gluten but are designated on our website and brochure as containing it due to possible cross-contamination possibilities. In some cases such as this, operating procedures do not always allow us to maintain separate cooking areas.”

When I followed up in a second email telling her the manager of my Culver’s says they have a dedicated fryer, she said “…technically, they should be free of gluten. Although, please keep in mind that we cannot guarantee cross-contamination.” So there is hope, you just might need to do some questioning at each store.

Burger King is another place a handful of people said they went to. But the fries are not on the company’s gluten-free list. One celiac called it a crapshoot in the email they sent. Another talked about needing special instructions every time you go.

Many people also said they stay home and eat Ore Ida fries or make them from scratch. We make them from scratch at least once a week. Here’s the very quick recipe: Cut your potatoes to be the size of a McDonald’s fry, put fries on cookie sheet, spread olive oil over all fries so they’re coated. Add salt. Bake on 425 degree oven for 20-30 minutes until crisp. Done! They’re very good!

Now, take this list with you next time you’re on a trip! Enjoy and get your french fry fix!

As always, there is a risk of cross-contamination when  you eat out.  So dining out and putting your diet in someone else’s hands is a personal choice.

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22 Responses to “Dining Out: Finding Gluten-Free Fries”

  1. Five Guys fries are the best! Their burgers are awesome too. I just order it without the bun and have never had a gluten problem – side effects of stuffing yourself with a pound of delicious grease, however, do still apply. It’s a huge mess though, so it’s best to take it home so you can use a plate.

    Steve
    http://www.iHateWheat.com

  2. Your statement about the info on the McDonald’s website edits out a phrase that I believe changes the whole meaning of the disclaimer.

    Here’s the full quote from the McDonald’s website (emphasis mine):

    “Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk AS STARTING INGREDIENTS.”

    They don’t dump hydrolyzed wheat into the oil. They derive flavorings from the wheat which, if I understand correctly, may contain barely detectable levels of gluten. Then they add a small amount of that flavoring to the huge quantity of oil in the fryer. As far as I know, no one has ever been able to detect any gluten in the fries.

    Vinegar and alcohol can be derived from wheat and be safe for most celiacs. I think it is very much the same with the flavoring McDonald’s uses that is derived from wheat and dairy sources.

  3. This post, as with many on cross contamination in frying oil, is not a solid source for a Celiac trying to determine safety of food. At best it illustrates the contradictory information on this issue. First, it references a belief a french fry manufactured with wheat can emerge from frying oil gluten free; that the oil cooks away the gluten. But then it references a commonly held belief that a french fry manufactured without gluten will when cooked in common oil emerge contaminated. Which is it? Oil cannot both cook away gluten and transfer it. If oil cooks away gluten, then based on that logic, a Celiac could eat breaded, fried food as the oil would cook away the gluten. No other cooking process can remove gluten from food so the probability that oil is able is low. However, equally questionable is the idea that the oil is a conduit for gluten. There are no widely accessible, published studies that have proven frying oil absorbs gluten. Gluten has also not been proven to adhere to oil and oil has not been proven to create an environment where food particles adhere to one another. In fact, its fundamental properties suggest the contrary without testing to be certain. If anyone has read those studies, I’d love to see them. I am not a scientist, but clearly one needs to undertake these two myths and determine exactly how gluten behaves when heated in oil. As it stands, there is no definitive answer to the cross-contamination in oil issue. Many people have come to harbor their belief because companies warn against cross contamination in frying oil. However, those statements are disclosures to indemnify the company against litigation.

  4. Thank you for your feedback Kate. The french fry issue is definitely dicey. My idea for the post was to at least give people a starting point to try and make some decisions or at least understand where the gluten-contamination debate lies.
    The points you raise are good, but as you state, someone needs to do scientific research in this area to know for sure about the safety of deep frying and status of gluten.
    I appreciate your input!

  5. In all honesty, a celiac needs to know themselves which food they can eat and what they can’t instead of relying on information from restaraunts. I am not ridiculously sensitive to gluten like I know some are, however, I get sick after I eat McDonalds fries and have no other food allergies that could be the cause. I try to use a trial & error method, I will try fries and other food at different restaraunts & see if I get sick, if I do, I stay away after that.

  6. My son is allergic to wheat and reacts with McDonalds french fries.

  7. Thank you for this article. McDonald’s fries do cause a strong and swift reaction when I eat them (I did not think to check for wheat in fries until this happened). You would think that it would “burn off” during the frying process, but I was sick for three days!

  8. I’ve reacted to McDonald’s fries also.

    WIth 5 Guys Although I stressed no gluten/bun I watched them make my burger then see no bun and take the bun off and readd the toppings and try to give it to me. I raised a stink, they remade my burger correctly but shouldn’t have happened in the 1st place. Personally it’s high priced for what you get although the fries are a good deal with the amount you get.

    I’ve found in several places around me, Portland, Or area, that gluten is in the oil before ever being used. Why? I have no idea but thats what I’ve been running into lately.

  9. Regarding the McDonald’s fries and the hydrolyzed wheat protein:
    http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-01-celiac-patients-hydrolyzed-wheat-flour.html

    I usually avoid, but enjoy at your own risk.

  10. Thanks Peter for your comment and your link. I hadn’t seen that before. Very good information.

  11. Thank you for posting about Culver’s. I’ve not reacted to them and I just looked at their site while checking other stuff out so I was sad to see them listed with gluten. Thanks for the clarification.

  12. I just want to eat some french fries! Why does it have to be so hard?

  13. Wendy’s always has great fries made in a dedicated fryer. They have the MOST GF options for a fast food place and are always respectful and accommodating! I’ve stopped at many on road trips across the country. Never an issue with them! Mcd’s fries make me VERY ill!

  14. As a Minnesotan, Amy, you should check out the Lion’s Tap in Eden Prairie. The only thing they serve are burgers and fries and they checked with the manufacturer to verify that they are gluten free. My daughter gets a burger with no bun and loves their fries.

    The only catch with the burger is that after they hand form the patties in the morning they store them into the bun bags! You can call ahead if you know you are going and they will put a patty aside. That said, we have never gone to that length and my daughter has never had an issue (whereas she has had an issue with cross contaminated fries before somewhere else).

  15. Wow! Storing the patties in the bun bags. Resourceful, but who would ever think to ask about that when it comes to cross-contamination? I will try to get down there sometime and check it out.

  16. What on earth are you eating ANY of that for? The oils are terrible and the food is crap. It isn’t just gluten!

  17. To: peggy genoway re: Eating French Fries. It is always helpful to know what foods are OK to eat, irrespective of fatty oils and what you consider to be “crap”. I have to travel extensively for my work and I have Celiac disease. I try to carry GF foods with me but often can’t, so knowing where I can find anything to eat that won’t send me into the nightmare reaction I have to gluten is incredibly helpful. If you start a day of travel at 4:00 a.m. when it’s too early for breakfast, hop on a flight that doesn’t even offer peanuts, and sprint through an enormous connecting airport to catch a flight, McDonald’s French Fries would taste pretty good – fatty oils and “crap” notwithstanding.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. March: It’s the Little (Gluten-Free) Things…
  2. Five Guys offers new Gluten-Free options | The Savvy Celiac
  3. Ask GFQ: Are French Fries Gluten-free?
  4. McDonald’s No Longer Maintains Gluten-free List
  5. Top Celiac or Gluten-Free Stories of 2009 | The Savvy Celiac

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