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Gluten Free On the Go: McDonald's

Not really actually gluten free maybe kinda sorta probably.

Not really actually gluten free maybe kinda sorta probably.

How safe are the ubiquitous Golden Arches for the GF community? Find out!

I took a trip to Tokyo when I was 19, and I stayed at this really cheap little hostel. Roads in Japan don't necessarily have names or go in straight lines, so it's almost always necessary to print out a map to wherever it is you need to go. The problem with that is, of course, that without street names you need a lot of landmarks printed on that map just to make sure you're not going the wrong way.

And the bigger problem with that is that everyone uses McDonald's as a landmark.

Oh sure, it has a pretty easy-to-spot red sign with the big ol' golden arches displayed prominently on the front. But since there are eight thousand hundred million of them in the city, it's not exactly the most helpful guide.

On this occasion I turned the wrong way, but I saw that McDonald's just like I saw on the map ... and I wound up in a red light district.

"But," you may say, "we're talking about gluten here! Not Japan or shady neighborhoods!" This is true. However, my point is that there's a McDonald's just about everywhere. At one point my hometown (pop. ~18,000) had three of them. Even tinier towns usually have at least one. You can almost always find a McDonald's if you just turn around. But despite the ever-growing number of troops in Ronald's army, just how friendly are he and his gang toward those with food allergies/issues?

First of all, it's worth pointing out that any fast food restaurant is likely to be staffed by A.) teenagers who don't give a bleep, and B.) people with a less-than-superb grasp of English. It's been my experience that some managers at Mickey D's really do care about their customers and will go above and beyond to make sure you have a good experience, but it might be hard to convey your allergen needs to one of the wage slaves behind the counter. Always ask for a manager to help you if you have any troubles.

Next I should tell you that on the McDonald's site there is no allergen chart like you find on sites such as Taco Bell or Subway. All you get is an ingredient statement. Which is probably better in some regards (you get to see what's in everything) but it takes a long time to scour.

Now for a little good news: As long as you avoid anything with a bun, tortilla or bread coating on it, you're PROBABLY good. The bad news is that you aren't left with much.

You can have a beef patty (including angus) or McRib patty with a variety of condiments. You can also have a grilled chicken patty. These used to contain wheat but were reformulated a little while back. This opens you up to the possibility of a salad, if that's your thing. All the salads should be okay with no chicken or with grilled chicken. The dressing is Newman's, which should be fine EXCEPT FOR the sesame ginger dressing.

Just, of course, don't add any croutons to your salad if they give them to you. You also may want to communicate to your cashier that you do NOT want the chicken cut up, as the same knife that cuts the crispy chicken probably cuts the grilled chicken. This is one of those cross-contamination issues. If you're not sensitive to that, then you might not worry.

AVOID the buttermilk ranch, tangy barbecue, sweet & sour and Big Mac sauces. These contain wheat. If you're ordering a sandwich sans bun, watch out for this.

ALSO watch out that they don't accidentally put your food on a bun and then take it off. It happens. One of the great things about McDonald's is that you can see most of what's going on back there.

When it comes to DESSERT you're in luck! The soft serve (sans cone) is GF, as well as the fudge and caramel toppings. The yogurt parfait is all right, but AVOID THE GRANOLA (it contains oats and barley malt). I don't know if it comes in a little packet, so you might ask. The fruit and walnut salad seems like it would be okay, but AVOID AVOID AVOID. McFlurries are also safe, but naturally you'll want to avoid anything cookie-like in your mix. And make sure that the cookies are a safe distance from the other containers on the counter if you can (ideally the M&Ms would be ABOVE or NEXT TO and not BELOW a cookie container). Since the McFlurry is mixed with a spoon attachment, you don't even have to worry about CC!

The McCafe selections are all safe, so drink away! It goes without saying that most of these contains milk and a few contain soy as well.

For BREAKFAST you're kind of limited, since most selections are (again) sandwiches. You could always get the Big Breakfast and leave off the biscuit, which basically leaves you eggs and sausage and a hash brown ... (hold on, we're getting to that). You can have pretty much anything but the buns/biscuits/bagels/hotcakes. Except ...

Okay, this is the big question. What about the potatoes?


The wheat is in some kind of beef (!!!!) flavoring and the ingredients statement insists it's "hydrolyzed" and some kind of starter. Let's not get into why fries need beef flavor in the first place. But it's weird. McDonald's, as far as I know, uses a dedicated fryer for their fries, and many GF people say they eat them without getting sick. And when you do get sick, it's hard to say if it's wheat or if it's 40 grams of fat (if your reactions are of the gastrointestinal variety). Especially with digestive disorders, processing fat can be a huge issue.

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McDonald's says that their fries and hash browns actually have no detectable gluten. I read once that it all "fries out" or something silly like that. At any rate, they say they've tested it and it's clear. And it should be said that there are cases where something can contain wheat and not gluten (such as wheat starch, in some cases).

Is it something you want to risk? That's really up to you. Some people, as I said, claim they have no ill effects. I used to eat McDonald's fries and had no problem sometimes, but other times I would feel sick. So I stopped eating them. I noted in my Japanese fast food article that the french fries over there do NOT contain wheat, and they taste (IMO) much better than they do here. So I'm not exactly sure why McDonald's USA can't get with the picture and remove the wheat and the beef from their fries. Making them 100% safe with 100% certainty would certainly make things easier, non?

For further reading, or if you have an hour to kill and want to read ingredients, visit:

It is a PDF file. But it tells you everything in everything on the McDonald's menu.

If you would like to WRITE TO MCDONALD'S asking for more GF options or a change to the formulation of their World Famous Fries, try THIS LINK. It takes you to a feedback form for their "food and nutrition" section.

You can also call them at 1-800-244-6227.


icmn91 from Australia on June 27, 2013:

McDonald's in Australia makes french fries as well. Unlike the USA, ours don't contain wheat and are cooked on their own. I enjoy them a lot. :p

Would be nice though if they provided gluten free bread to us 'down under'...

Gabriella on April 25, 2013:

Reading this I just want to point out that if you travel to Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark (Scandinavia) and to my knowledge Spain, McDonald's have gluten free bread. I am from Sweden and all the fast-food burger places have gluten free bread. I wish the same went for the States.

LauraGSpeaks from Raleigh, NC on March 10, 2013:

Thanks for this info. I had wondered if McDonald's fries were safe to eat


sclapaugh0323 on February 07, 2013:

I agree. When I travel and have to eat fast food, all I can get is fatty burgers and fried food. If someone came up with a chain that sold healthy fast food, I think they would do surprisingly well. Subway would also do a lot better if they added more drive thrus.

Banned cause of PISSANTS Promisem and Dean Traylor on February 05, 2013:

I'd say if someone started a fast food chain that only sold healthy and Gluten Free pizzas, sandwiches and such they would be a surprisinng success. If the gluten free aspect increases the price of an item reduce the size - fewer calories all good for your health. They can call it Feel Good Foods or FGF!

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