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Sushi is growing more and more popular as it becomes more available in sushi restaurants and supermarkets across the globe. It is a quick, easy, healthy snack for anyone on the run, and now more than ever it comes in many varieties.
Despite sushi primarily being a fish-based food, it is now available for vegetarians and vegans so more and more people can enjoy sushi. However, the diversity of new sushi flavors is fantastic, but it doesn’t do much to the gluten content. Many people ask whether sushi is gluten free or not – and the answer is that most people don’t know!
Today I am going to look into the main ingredients in sushi and whether or not they are gluten free. If they are not, then I will be exploring some alternatives that may work with a gluten free diet. So have no fear, by the end of this article you will know if you can eat sushi, and if you can’t, I will find a way for you to enjoy gluten free sushi dining!
Table of Contents
What is in Sushi?
The beauty of sushi is that it can be prepared in over 1000 ways with a never-ending list of ingredients. There are, however, a few ingredients that are often found in sushi and can be essential to sushi being held together and forming the traditional flavors and textures of sushi.
Certain ingredients are of course gluten free, whereas others contain gluten. Being able to establish which ones contain gluten, can help you to know what to order in sushi restaurants, or what you would need in order to make your own sushi gluten free.
The three main ingredients for any sushi rolls are:
Sushi-meshi – the vinegared sushi rice
Nori – thin, paper-liked seaweed sheets that are used to wrap and contain the rice and other choices of filling
Gu – sushi fillings or toppings that alternate depending on the type of sushi you have chosen
The above ingredients are all gluten free, and so in short, yes, sushi is gluten free. However, the problem lies with the common fillings and flavors, and so now it is time to take a look at some of these.
Sushi rice is typically short-grained white rice. Rice itself is naturally gluten free, and so as a key component of sushi, sushi rice containing gluten is not something to worry about. People often think that all grains contain gluten, but gluten is typically only found in wheat and wheat-based products.
It is important however, to note that sushi rice is often prepared using vinegar – primarily rice vinegar, and some of the other ingredients may be marinated in this. Rice vinegar is made by using acetic acid bacteria to ferment the starches in rice.
Whilst this process contains absolutely no gluten, if your sushi, or sushi rice, contains other forms of vinegar it is important to ensure that they do not contain any gluten.
Seaweed sheets are also known as nori sheets, and are made by pressing dried seaweed until it forms an extremely thin, paper-like sheet. Seaweed is naturally gluten free, and seaweed paper is traditionally only made from pressed sea weeds.
Seaweed is graded on its quality, with silver and gold being the highest of quality. This means the seaweed is the least processed, and comes in a very dark colour. It is stronger than other sheets of seaweed, making it ideal for sushi rolling and for gluten free sushi.
Green, blue and other coloured seaweed indicates a lower quality. These sheets may contain other ingredients and so unless you are buying the dark green, gold or silver graded seaweed, then you should make sure you check if your sheets contain anything else.
Overall, seaweed is gluten free, and the type that is best used for sushi is typically gluten free, however in some cases the lower quality seaweed paper may contain other ingredients that could have traces of gluten so it is best to check your seaweed if you are trying to make your sushi gluten free.
Sushi Fillings and Toppings
As mentioned, sushi can come in hundreds of flavors and varieties which makes it such a popular and loved food, but also makes it difficult to know whether or not you are eating gluten free sushi.
Some fillings are more common than others and so it is worth having a little look into some of the more popular ingredients used in sushi so that it can be easier to determine what is safe to eat, and what is not, when looking at a menu.
Soy sauce is an extremely popular ingredient in most Asian food, including sushi. The flavor of soy sauce is quite salty and is paired really nicely with fish. Soy sauce is often used by sushi chefs as a marinade for the vegetables or meat.
Soy sauce is made by fermenting the soybeans with wheat or barley in salt and water. Yeast culture is also used to help with this process and so not only does the wheat contain gluten, but the yeast also does. This is what gives soy sauce its yummy, savory flavor, but unfortunately it does mean that any sushi containing soy sauce is not gluten free.
Some sushi chefs do use alternatives for soy sauce, or gluten free soy sauce, in order to make sushi gluten free. You can also find gluten free soy sauce in some asian supermarkets if you desire to make your own gluten free sushi using the flavoring from soy sauce.
Soy sauce is often considered gluten free because the fermenting process reduces the gluten levels to minimal, however if you have an intolerance to gluten then it is better to ensure you are only purchasing and consuming gluten free soy sauce in your gluten free sushi.
Similar to soy sauce, wasabi sauce is also commonly used in asian cooking and particularly in sushi rolls, but whether or not it is gluten free is another question.
Whilst traditional wasabi sauce is made from ground wasabi root, a lot of restaurants prepare their own using a combination of mustard, horseradish and in some cases they use other ingredients that are wheat based to help combine everything. These additional ingredients can be left out though to make your wasabi gluten free.
The latter is not typical, and so in most cases you should be fine to eat both wasabi and wasabi replacements, but it is always best to check with the chef or the ingredients. Alternatively you can take your own mini bottle of wasabi to add to your food yourself.
California rolls are the type of sushi roll typically found in grocery stores or many sushi restaurants and that are considered ‘fast-food’ or less-expensive. They contain surimi – fake crab meat or ‘imitation crab’. The more expensive, and better quality sushi chains will contain real crab, but when it is sold at a cheaper price it also means the ingredients come at a cheaper price.
This imitation crab is made by grinding white fish and combining it with a form of starch, which is often some form of wheat flour. This wheat flour contains gluten, and so whilst regular crab meat would be safe for celiacs, imitation crab is not a suitable alternative.
This means that california rolls are typically off the menu for those who cannot eat gluten. It is also important to bear in mind that many restaurants do not know that surimi, or imitation crab, contains gluten, and so it is important to know what they are putting into your sushi and if they do use imitation crab meat over regular crab meat then be sure to avoid this!
Many sushi rolls contain tempura-dipped vegetables and meats. Tempura is a type of batter that is used to lightly coat vegetables and meats to give them a crispy coating.
Typically tempura is made using flour, egg and water, and so again it contains wheat. This means that any sushi that contains tempura is likely to be off the cards for those who cannot eat gluten.
Many sushi restaurants work towards making their menu gluten-free, so if this is the case then you may be able to have tempura meats and vegetables that do not contain any wheat in the batter, but this is specific to the place you are eating so make sure you ask them.
If your sushi contains tempura, it is usually quite easy to spot. Most sushi fillings will be raw and fresh, whereas tempura has a noticeable layer of batter. Keep any eye out for this, or for the word ‘tempura’ on the menu, and steer clear if you spot it!
Less traditional sushi sometimes contains breaded vegetables and meat, a lot like tempura. This is made by dipping the vegetable or meat into flour, then egg yolk, then breadcrumbs and then it is deep fried. This creates a crispy shell around the ingredients and gives it a really nice crunch.
Whilst this is delicious, it is unfortunately never gluten free. Again, the wheat in the flour and the breadcrumbs makes any form of breadcrumb coating unacceptable for celiacs.
Luckily, breadcrumbed ingredients are not often found in sushi, and if they are then they will be clearly labeled gluten free and any restaurants will be fully aware that this is not gluten free.
Gluten Free Sushi Fillings
You can add just about anything to your sushi rolls. Typically people will use vegetables and fish or meat, however this is commonly marinated to add flavor.
Whilst rolling things like tomato, avocado, tuna, salmon or beef may all taste delicious, it is the seasoning and sauce that really helps to bring out the flavor. Because this is typically soy sauce, it means that a sushi roll that is originally gluten free, quickly becomes no longer gluten free.
Instead, there are some alternatives you can use in place of soy sauce when making your own sushi, and replacements you can look out for on the menu of any sushi restaurant.
This is the closest substitute for soy sauce. The main component is still soybeans, but instead of using wheat or yeast to ferment them, they use rice instead which helps get the flavor as close as possible to the original soy sauce.
This is a milder, sweeter and less salty version of traditional soy sauce. It is in fact like a soy-free, gluten free soy sauce. It looks extremely similar and still has the same texture and almost the same taste.
Liquid Aminos is very similar to both soy sauce and tamari sauce, however it is not fermented. It is both gluten and wheat free. It also does not contain any sodium, for example salt, and so overall it is a much healthier alternative as well.
In many recipes, Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce are used interchangeably. This is a great gluten free alternative if you are based in the UK, but can be trickier to find in other parts of the world. It is made with a combination of anchovies, vinegar, molasses, garlic, tamarind, chilli extract, sugar and salt. Whilst all of these are gluten free, you should double check the back of the bottle beforehand.
As mentioned before, some vinegars may contain traces of gluten and so it is better to ensure that whatever vinegar is contained in your Worcestershire sauce is also gluten free.
Whilst substituting your soy sauce with gluten free Worcestershire sauce is a good alternative for a gluten free diet, it is important to remember that unlike soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce is not vegan or vegetarian, and so if you are making vegetarian or vegan gluten free sushi, this would not be a good replacement.
Red Miso Paste
Tamari is the byproduct of making miso paste, hence why miso paste can be an excellent alternative as well as tamari.
Of all substitutes, it is probably the least similar to original soy sauce, but still has the salty, umami flavor of soy sauce. You can find out more about alternatives to getting this umami flavor here, as some may work well in your sushi as other alternatives to soy sauce.
As red miso is in paste form, you will need to use water to thin it down to a sauce consistency when using it to marinate your vegetables or meats.
Overall, the base ingredients used for sushi are gluten free. With keeping a special eye on the vinegar used to make the sushi rice, the combination of the rice and seaweed paper used for the roll will likely contain no gluten whatsoever.
The concern for those with celiac disease is the fillings used in the sushi. When making your own sushi rolls it is easy to monitor what is going into them and you can stick to using gluten free sauces and ingredients.
When buying from the grocery store, look out for california rolls, as they are likely to contain imitation crab which contains gluten. Similarly, check the back of any pre-made sushi you buy and make sure that it is marked as gluten free.
When eating in sushi restaurants, it really depends on the type you go for. The cheaper sushi restaurants are likely to use substitutes instead of pure seaweed and original sauces, and in this case they are more likely to contain gluten.
Make sure to steer clear of any sushi that contains deep fried goods, as these will definitely contain gluten through either the flour or the breadcrumbs.
You can always ask the sushi chef what is in the foods, or alternatively you can enjoy sushi from the comfort of your own home, using any of the recommendations mentioned above to marinate your veggies and meats, bringing some extra flavor to your sushi rolls!
So, the better the sushi, the purer it is and the less likely it is to contain gluten! In most cases, your sushi will be safe but like anything, it is a good idea to double check!
Are avocado sushi rolls gluten-free?
Avocado sushi rolls are gluten free as long as they are not used for making soy sauce, or any other sauce containing gluten. It is best to make them yourself or to check the packaging when buying.
Does tuna sushi have gluten?
Plain tuna in sushi will not contain gluten, but it is likely that the sauce used to marinate the tuna will contain gluten, so make sure you check this.
Is Dry sushi rice gluten-free?
Dry sushi rice is gluten free, as is all rice.