Is Sushi Gluten-Free?

Salmon and Tuna sushi with soy sauce in a plate

Is sushi gluten free? Yes, it is, in the most traditional form. This article answers all the questions about sushi and how it can be a celiac-friendly dish.

One of Japan’s traditional foods; “sushi,” has now become a global favorite. Loved by people across the globe, this dish has undergone several variations. This dish dates back 1000 years ago when it all began with fermented rice and fish preservatives. 

It was known as Nare-zushi, which means aged sushi. Despite the dish originally having only two ingredients which may seem to be gluten-free and appropriate for a gluten-free diet, why do people still question, “is sushi gluten-free?” Let’s get to it right away.

Is sushi gluten free?

In reality, sushi is a broader term that describes a dish that mainly contains vinegared rice and seafood. Rice, in its natural form, is gluten-free, and so is seafood, thus making traditional sushi gluten-free.

While traditional Japanese sushi may not usually contain gluten, sushi from other countries does tend to have wheat-based ingredients such as soy sauce or tempura batter. This can make sushi unsafe for people with celiac disease [1]National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity.

To be on the safe side, always check with the sushi chef to see what type of sushi is being prepared and what ingredients are going into it. If you are still unsure, there are several gluten-free sushi options that you can choose from.

Types of gluten free sushi

It depends on the toppings and fillings. Traditionally sushi is gluten-free as it does not involve any ingredients which contain gluten. The below-mentioned list of sushi are the most basic types, and they do not involve many ingredients, thus making them less complicated and gluten-free.

  • Nigiri: This is the most common type of sushi that you will find at a sushi restaurant. It is made with vinegared rice and topped with raw fish (Sashimi) held together by tying a thin strip of seaweed around it. 
  • Maki sushi (tekkamaki or sakemaki): Maki sushi is usually classified by its filling, which can be, for example, cucumber, tuna (Tekkamaki), or salmon (Sakemaki). It is a great gluten-free option as it has either cucumber, salmon, or tuna as a filling.
  • Inarizushi sushi: This type of sushi is made by stuffing a fried tofu pouch (aburaage/ bean curd) with vinegared rice, which is then simmered in a dashi broth. The dashi broth gives it a great umami flavor.
  • Hosomaki sushi: Hosomaki means “thin roll,” and it is made by rolling vinegared rice and a small amount of fillings in a seaweed sheet. It is also a great gluten-free option as it just involves vinegar rice, seaweed, and a single ingredient in the center, which usually is raw seafood.

However, the chances are that if there is any kind of cross-contamination, these gluten-free sushi types may end up containing traces of gluten.

Gluten free sushi ingredients and toppings

Sushi fillings (Gu) or toppings can be either cooked or raw and can include a variety of items such as the ones mentioned below

  • Seaweed sheet (sushi nori): Nori seaweed is the paper-like seaweed that is used to wrap sushi rolls or to make handheld sushi cones. It is gluten-free unless seasoned with other ingredients which have gluten.
  • Seafood (salmon, tuna, eel, shrimp, crab, lobster): Seafood is a common filling/topping in sushi which is mostly gluten-free. Imitation crab sticks are an exception, containing starch from wheat.
  • Vegetables: The most common vegetables are cucumber, radish, avocado, yamagobo (burdock root), daikon, carrot, and lotus root. All these vegetables are gluten-free.
  • Eggs: Eggs are used in different forms in sushi. Omelet strips and scrambled eggs are used in sushi, They make a great gluten-free sushi topping and are all gluten-free.
  • Wasabi: Wasabi is the Japanese horseradish that is used as a condiment in sushi. Traditionally made, wasabi is gluten-free.
  • Pickled ginger: Ginger that has been pickled in vinegar is a common condiment served with sushi. It is pink in color and has a slightly sweet taste. Pickled ginger is normally gluten-free.
  • Imitation wasabi: Imitation wasabi is usually made with horseradish, mustard flour, and green food coloring. It is not really wasabi but has a similar flavor. Imitation wasabi is normally gluten-free. However, it is always best to check the label to be sure.
  • Tofu: Tofu is a common filling in sushi, and it is made from soybeans. Tofu is gluten-free and safe for celiac patients. Ensure that the tofu has not been seasoned or coated with other ingredients containing gluten.
  • Masago/Tobiko: Masago and tobiko are both types of fish roe that are often used as a sushi topping. They are small, orange, and have a slightly sweet taste. Masago and tobiko are both gluten-free and safe for celiac intolerants.
  • Cooked meats: Cooked meats such as chicken, beef, and pork can be used as a sushi topping or filling. Most cooked meats are gluten-free, but it is always best to check with the chef at the restaurant if the meat isn’t seasoned with ingredients containing gluten.

Hidden gluten content in sushi

Most types of sushi are naturally gluten-free as they are made with rice, seafood, and vegetables. However, there could be certain ingredients or styles of preparations that would make the sushi unsafe for celiac patients or people with wheat intolerance.

Tempura sushi

Tempura sushi is also known as breaded sushi. It is a method in which seafood such as shrimp/prawn/squids are cooked in a batter. As the tempura batter usually contains wheat flour. It is best to order tempura-free sushi rolls or sushi that does not contain any tempura batter. 

Soy sauce

Sushi is often served with soy sauce [2]Gluten Free Watch Dog: Updated statement from FDA on soy sauce on the side. Regular soy sauce contains wheat and therefore is not gluten-free. If you are looking for a gluten-free sushi option, be sure to order sushi that is served with tamari (gluten-free soy sauce) or no soy sauce.

Sushi with imitation crab meat

Imitation crab sticks made up of fake crab meat are often used in sushi rolls as a cheaper alternative to real crab. They are usually made with wheat, so if you are looking for a gluten-free sushi option, be sure to order sushi rolls that do not contain imitation crab sticks.

Sauces used while making sushi

Many different sauces can be used in sushi. Some of these sauces may contain gluten, so if you are looking for a gluten-free option, refrain from sauces like Ponzu sauce, eel sauce, and teriyaki sauce, as they may contain gluten.

Is rice vinegar gluten free?

Rice vinegar is what gives sushi its characteristic flavor and texture. Although rice is naturally gluten-free, the vinegar used may or may not be gluten-free. This vinegar is usually distilled from rice which is gluten-free. However, some rice vinegar could also be distilled using other grains which may have gluten.

They are known as non-distilled white vinegar [3]Beyond Celiac: Is Sushi Gluten-Free? made from ingredients such as corn or wheat. It is best to check the ingredients on the rice vinegar, whether it is distilled or not.

How to buy gluten-free sushi at a supermarket?

Buying sushi at your local supermarket is a convenient and easy option, especially when you are short on time. However, not all supermarkets offer gluten-free options for sushi.

  • Check the ingredients list to see if it is gluten-free. If in doubt, you can always contact the manufacturer to enquire about the product.
  • Look for a certification by an organisation like the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) [4]Gluten-Free Certification Organization: About Us .
  • Avoid buying breaded sushi or sushi that comes with any gluten-containing sauces.

How to order gluten-free sushi at a restaurant? 

We understand it might get difficult to maintain a gluten-free lifestyle if you are celiac or have gluten intolerance. It is important to follow the tips given below to avoid any mishaps.

  • Keep the server informed about your dietary restrictions and food allergies and request for Tamari along with your sushi.
  • Request the sushi chef to make your sushi without any tempura batter.
  • You may choose to avoid California rolls, Spider rolls, or Rainbow rolls as they contain usually contain imitation crab sticks.
  • Call in advance and check with the restaurant about their menu.

Conclusion

On an ending note, we would like to reiterate the importance of taking all the necessary precautions while you order sushi from a restaurant or buy at a supermarket. Following the tips mentioned in this article will help you enjoy sushi worry and gluten-free. Sushi is a delicious way to add more seafood to your diet, and now you know it can be a part of your gluten-free diet too!

References

References
1 National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Celiac Disease
2 Gluten Free Watch Dog: Updated statement from FDA on soy sauce
3 Beyond Celiac: Is Sushi Gluten-Free?
4 Gluten-Free Certification Organization: About Us

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