Today, there are many diners with dietary restrictions. Some have allergies, some are vegans, some eat organic only, and then there are those that are gluten-free.
No matter what type of restrictions you may have, it’s important to research foods to find out what is and what is not safe to eat.
Eating the right foods can be even more challenging if you are in a foreign country.
You might not even know what foods you are eating much less whether or not you are eating ingredients that should be avoided.
For instance, say you are in Japan and you are on a gluten-free diet. Would you know if sushi is gluten-free?
Sushi is gluten-free if you make it yourself as it is rice, seaweed, and fish, and safe for you to eat as long as you look out for some of the added ingredients like tempura batter and the biggest culprits of gluten in sushi at restaurants: soy sauce and sushi rice vinegar.
Well, if you are gluten-free and plan on eating sushi in Japan, read on to find out everything you need to know.
In this post we'll cover:
What Does it Mean to Be Gluten-Free?
Let’s start by taking a look at what it means to be gluten-free.
Gluten is a protein found in most grains. It is present in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. It is also found in products like corn, rice and quinoa.
However, the gluten in these foods isn’t as likely to trigger sensitivities.
Many people are on a gluten-free diet due to dietary issues that are triggered when eating gluten. These include the following:
- Celiac Disease: This is a condition where gluten triggers immune system activity that can damage the small intestine. Over time, it can also prevent the absorption of nutrients from food.
- Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: This type of sensitivity triggers symptoms that are similar to those associated with Celiac disease including abdominal pain, headaches, rashes, diarrhea, constipation and bloating. However, there is no damage to the small intestine.
- Gluten Ataxia: This is an autoimmune disorder that affects nerve control and causes involuntary muscle movement.
- Wheat Allergy: Wheat allergies occur when the immune system detects wheat as being a harmful invader. It reacts by creating an antibody to the protein which can cause difficulty breathing, congestion and other symptoms.
Additionally, some people avoid wheat because they claim that doing so makes them feel better.
Is Sushi Gluten-Free?
A simple answer to this question is, yes, sushi is gluten-free. Its basic ingredients are rice, fish, and vegetables.
These are all gluten-free ingredients so those with Celiac Disease should have the green light when eating this food. Right?
Well, not so fast.
Sushi is made using various ingredients and preparations and some of these are not gluten-free.
Soy sauce, for instance, is made using wheat. Therefore, if soy sauce is used as a dip or if it was used in the preparation of the sushi, the sushi would not be gluten-free.
There are gluten-free soy sauces that can be used, but if the ingredients include regular old soy sauce, the dish is not gluten-free.
Traditional Japanese restaurants will most certainly use Tamari sauce instead of Soy sauce, but it’s best to check.
This is my favorite brand:
Original Japanese soy sauce is called Tamari, like this San-J sauce that I use. It's a premium soy sauce that is naturally brewed with 100% soy and no wheat whereas regular soy sauce is made with 40-60% wheat.
Here are some other sushi ingredients and preparations you will want to look out for:
- Tempura Style: Tempura style sushi consists of fish or vegetables that have been dipped in a batter that contains wheat.
- Imitation Crab: Imitation crab contains parts that were dyed, starched, flavored, and frozen and therefore it is not gluten-free. Imitation crab is also called surimi so if you see this ingredient listed in your sushi, run the other way. If you are on a gluten-free diet, be sure you are eating sushi made with real crab. If the crab is imitation, request that the server replace it with another ingredient such as avocado or a different piece of fish.
- Rice: Even though rice contains gluten, it will not aggravate gluten-related conditions. However, the rice in sushi is often mixed with vinegar which is made with barley. Therefore, it is a good idea to make sure your sushi was made with plain rice.
- Sauces: There are many sushi sauces that may contain wheat. These include soy sauce, eel sauce, barbecue sauce, ponzu sauce, and creamy sauces that contain mayonnaise. If you are gluten-free and you like your sushi with lots of condiments, you may be better off bringing your own sauce to restaurants.
- Note: Wasabi is usually gluten-free and safe to eat. However, some restaurants don’t use real wasabi but a mixture of mayonnaise, mustard, and green food coloring. This doesn’t happen often but it is something to consider. It’s best to ask to review the ingredients in a restaurant’s wasabi before ordering it.
Sesame Seeds: These can be coated with products that can contain gluten.
- Marinated Fish: Fish is often marinated before it is used in sushi. Commonly marinated seafood includes salmon, tuna and unagi (freshwater eel). The marinades used often contain soy sauce so its best to avoid any type of marinated seafood.
- Spices: The spices used in sushi are likely to contain gluten. Avoid ordering any sushi that has the word ‘spicy’ in its name such as spicy salmon and spicy tuna.
It’s also important to realize that when you eat sushi in a restaurant, they are probably using other products that contain gluten.
This is especially likely in a Japanese restaurant that uses lots of soy sauce.
Cross-contamination could occur and you can accidentally end up eating food products that spike health issues.
Sushi restaurants are usually pretty good about cross-contamination as many of them allow their patrons to see their food prepared right in front of them.
Therefore, you should be okay if you warn chefs that you are very allergic to soy sauce and other gluten products before they prepare your meal.
So, with all the gluten ingredients that could be in your sushi, where does that leave you? Here are the types of sushi that are generally gluten-free.
- Masago / Tobiko
- King Crab
- Vegetable-based sushi
- California rolls (as long as it’s made with real crab)
- Tuna rolls
- Vegetarian rolls
You can also ask your server about gluten-free options when you are eating out.
Read all about the different types of sushi in our post here
However, there is still a lot to be learned about the labeling of gluten-free products, so if your server seems unsure, it is best to steer clear.
Here is Good for you gluten free with a video on how to make gluten-free sushi on her channel:
Are Sushi Burritos Gluten-Free?
If you have never had the pleasure of eating a sushi burrito, you’re missing out.
These burritos contain raw fish, rice and veggies rolled into a burrito shape.
Their assembly is similar to that of a sushi roll which is to say, they have a protein in the middle which is then surrounded by a vegetable and a layer of rice.
They are held together by sheets of nori.
Based on what we know about a gluten-free diet, you can probably already tell that a sushi burrito will tick off all the boxes when it comes to safe eating.
However, once again, you must be careful that no sauces were added that put gluten in the mix and that no cross-contamination occurred.
Check out our post on sushi burritos here as well
Tips for Staying Gluten-Free When Eating Out
If you really have a hankering for sushi but are scared that you are going to get ‘glutened’ when eating at a sushi restaurant, here are some precautions you can take.
Make sure the restaurant has a gluten-free soy sauce called Tamari. Alternately, you can bring these to the restaurant yourself.
There is a company called Little Soya that makes small packets that are discreet and won’t open in your purse.
Ask for a clean sushi mat. This will help keep any gluten particles out of your food.
Make the server change their gloves. This is another way to prevent cross-contamination.
Make sure the server uses a clean cutting board and knife.
Do not use any sauces unless you have checked out the ingredients in advance.
Ask that your sushi be made to order for you. Avoid eating at any restaurants that serve mass-produced sushi as chefs in these restaurants typically do not take any precautions when preparing these foods.
Sushi in its basic form is technically gluten-free. However, there are several ingredients that can be added that make the dish unsafe for gluten-free diners.
Be sure you are aware of the ingredients before you order and take the necessary precautions to make sure your food is not cross-contaminated.