The growing popularity of the gluten-free diet means even fast food restaurant chains — which tend to have pretty gluten-filled menus — are jumping on the bandwagon, providing more options for those of us with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Just be careful: the risk of cross contamination in fast food restaurants, even those with gluten-free menus, is extremely high, and it's unlikely the people behind the counter have been trained in avoiding it. Keep your order simple and your instructions explicit for the best results.
Here's an alphabetical rundown of common fast food restaurant chains and their gluten-free menu options:
Arby's, owned by the same company as Wendy's, features a fairly comprehensive gluten-free menu for a fast food restaurant.
If you're gluten-free, it's possible to dine at Arby's on most of the meats (without a bun, of course) and two meal-sized salads — the farmhouse salad with turkey and ham and the farmhouse salad with roast chicken. The chocolate, jamocha swirl and vanilla shakes also are listed as gluten-free.
However, unlike Wendy's (and like most other fast food restaurants), Arby's prepares its fries in the same oil as it cooks gluten foods, so Arby's fries and potato cakes are not safe. You'll need to work with the person behind the counter to avoid gluten cross-contamination.
2. Boston Market
Boston Market dropped the gluten from its poultry gravy back in 2011, which made for tastier options at the popular chain.
Gluten-free guests at Boston Market can order a comparably wide selection of entrees (including rotisserie chicken and roasted turkey breast) and sides (including steamed vegetables, several different kinds of potatoes, green beans and spinach) from the chain's gluten-free list.
Check out the Food Allergy Search section on Boston Market's website, which allows you to list only the gluten-free menu options. Sadly, there are no gluten-free desserts.
3. Burger King
Burger King unveiled its new gluten-sensitive list several years ago as part of its "BK Positive Steps" campaign to provide more nutrition information on its menu items. As of late 2011, it also changed the recipe on its french fries to make them gluten-free, although the chain notes they may be fried with gluten-containing items, which is a deal-killer for us.
The Burger King gluten-free list includes both menu items and ingredients in menu items, and it can be difficult to decipher what on the menu actually will turn out gluten-free — for example, it states that "salad mix" and "lettuce" are gluten-free, but doesn't say whether a prepared salad would be safe. However, the Garden Fresh Salad with Apple and Cranberry and Tendergrill chicken is listed as gluten-free.
Still, the list might provide some options (especially if you're starving) if it was coupled by an understanding Burger King staffer. For example, it might be possible to get a bunless hamburger there with the gluten-free fries (just confirm that the individual location does not use a shared fryer).
Chick-fil-A provides the best gluten-free list of any fast food restaurant — the six-page document lists a huge variety of menu options and provides the ingredients for each one, so people with additional food allergies or intolerances can determine what's safe for them to eat.
It's possible to enjoy several different meal-sized salads (with chicken or without), a couple of different breakfast items, and Chick-fil-A's waffle fries, which are cooked in separate fryers (be sure to check with your individual restaurant to be sure about the fryer status).
In addition, the fast food chain recently added grilled gluten-free chicken nuggets and blended fruit applesauce to its kids' menu. Chick-fil-A's yogurt parfait and Ice Dream dessert cup are listed as gluten-free. Many people report good gluten-free experiences at Chick-fil-A.
5. Chipotle Mexican Grill
Chipotle Mexican Grill, which spans the gap between a fast food restaurant chain and a casual dine-in restaurant, offers a huge variety of options for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. In fact, everything on Chipotle's menu except for the flour tortillas is listed as gluten-free on the company's Special Diet Information handout.
Of course, the flour tortillas could prove a problem if you're particularly sensitive to trace gluten, since workers routinely touch them and then reach into the containers of tortilla fillers.
In addition, those who react to distilled vinegar should avoid the red tomatillo salsa (see more on this: Is Vinegar Gluten-Free?). Also, Chipotle's notes that anything with corn might have been contaminated by other grains before ever getting to the restaurant (they've obviously done their homework!).
Otherwise, if you're lucky enough to have a Chipotle's nearby, enjoy. Just make sure to ask the people making your food to change their gloves first.
6. In-N-Out Burger
Devotees of In-N-Out Burger (and there are quite a few in the gluten-free community) order their burgers "protein-style," or wrapped in lettuce instead of in a bun.
This is such a popular item (both for the gluten-free and for Atkins devotees) that the fast food restaurant chain has it listed on its secret menu. In addition, the In-N-Out fries should be gluten-free and therefore safe (but never forget to ask).
McDonald's doesn't maintain a gluten-free menu, stating instead that since ingredients and suppliers change frequently, people with concerns should check back at the company's website. There, you can find wheat (but not barley and rye) declared in their various ingredients lists.
There's a tremendous debate in the gluten-free community about whether McDonald's fries are gluten-free. The oil they're fried in contains wheat derivatives, but McDonald's maintains the fries themselves contain no gluten detectable by tests that go down to 3 parts per million. (For the record, I don't eat McDonald's fries.)
8. Sonic Drive-In
If you like burgers without a bun, you can order one at Sonic Drive In, and the fries and tater tots are gluten-free, too, according to Sonic's allergen table. However, any fried foods (such as those fries and tater tots) may be exposed to gluten-containing items in shared friers.
Sonic's shakes, which come with a huge variety of toppings, may be a better reason to go to the drive-in fast food restaurant. Many of the potential shake toppings are gluten-free (with the exception of obvious ones, such as Oreos, malt syrup, and pie crumb pieces, and not-so-obvious ones, such as Salted Caramel). Make sure before ordering a shake that you ask the worker to make it in an absolutely clean mixer.
Many people with celiac or gluten sensitivity head to Wendy's as their first choice when looking for a gluten-free fast food restaurant. According to Wendy's published gluten-free menu, most or all of the chain's trademark baked potatoes contain no gluten ingredients, and the Wendy's chili and chocolate and vanilla Frostys are on the list as well.
At Wendy's, you can eat the salads without croutons (assuming they're not pre-prepared with croutons — never, ever pick croutons off a salad!), and most of the salad dressings are listed as safe. You also can order a hamburger or cheeseburger without the bun. When ordering, though, be certain the people behind the counter know to change their gloves and to avoid cross-contact with any gluten-containing items.
In some Wendy's locations, you may be able to eat the French fries — you'll need to check to see if they're fried in the same oil as gluten-containing items.
10. Also Rans: Taco Bell and KFC
Taco Bell maintains a list of problematic ingredients for people with allergies and sensitivities, but sadly, the only gluten-free items on it are a few drinks and a handful of sauces.
As for KFC, there's basically nothing safe to eat that's gluten-free there (with the exception of one or two salads), and the chain has made little effort to accommodate us.