Many charcoal products contain a form of starch it's there to help hold the charcoal pieces together and to provide for a controlled burn. And wheat starch is one of the common starches used for this purpose.
Some Charcoal Brands Contain Wheat
Most people think of charcoal as being made up of wood and nothing else, but most charcoal products actually contain a variety of other ingredients. It's the charcoal briquettes those pillow-shaped, symmetrical pieces of charcoal that probably represent the most commonly used form of fuel for your grill that pose the gluten-related risk.
Charcoal briquettes typically contain wood (in the form of both charred wood and sawdust), minerals (coal and limestone), sodium nitrate (to aid ignition) and starch to hold it all together. According to the California Barbeque Association, the starches used can come from corn, rice, potatoes and/or wheat.
Of course, you're probably thinking this shouldn't matter after all, you don't actually eat the charcoal, right?
Well, true. But it's the rare grill master who can avoid getting a little charcoal dust on the burgers as the fire sputters and pops beneath them. And inhaling airborne gluten in the form of charcoal dust also represents a potential problem. Although the suspect ingredient is wheat starch, not wheat protein (see What Is Gluten? for more information), the starch used isn't purified, and so inevitably contains some gluten protein.
So yes, while the risk of inadvertent gluten cross-contamination is far less with charcoal than it would be in a flour-filled kitchen, there is still some risk.
Fortunately, the risk also is pretty easy to avoid. Here are a couple of options for you:
- First, you can purchase 100% pure wood charcoal instead of briquettes you might not find it in your local grocery store, but big chain hardware stores carry it, and I've seen it at Wal-Mart. It's commonly called "lump charcoal," and the pieces will not be uniform like briquettes; instead, they will look just like burnt pieces of wood (which they are). You even can use different varieties of lump charcoal, such as mesquite or hickory, to impart different flavors to your grilled foods.
- If you prefer briquettes (they do tend to light more easily than lump charcoal), you can stick with Kingsford briquettes. A Kingsford company representative confirmed to me that the company customarily uses corn starch, not wheat starch, to make its briquettes. Therefore, unless you're extremely sensitive to corn as well as to gluten, you should be reasonably safe using Kingsford briquettes.
- Finally, you can invest in that gas grill you (or your significant other) has been craving. With propane gas, there's no risk of gluten exposure.
Just remember that there are other potential risks for a glutening when you're grilling that don't involve the charcoal. If you cook your foods on the same grill surface as gluten-containing foods, you're running a huge risk of cross-contamination. Splatters from unsafe sauces or crumbs from gluten-y buns will get you every time, so beware use only a completely clean (or dedicated gluten-free) grill surface, and keep your food separate from any gluten-containing items.