No gluten, no problem, right? Not so fast.

By Maggie Seaver
Updated April 19, 2019
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Before you order that gluten-free pizza at your favorite fast-casual restaurant, there’s something you need to know—especially if you have celiac disease or a serious gluten intolerance. Results from a new study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology reveal that many restaurant dishes advertised as gluten-free, well, aren’t.

Over the course of 18 months, Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, MS, Celiac Disease Center at NY-Presbyterian Hospital and assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School, tested 5,624 restaurant food samples to find out if they were really gluten-free. The results? Nearly one-third (32 percent, to be precise) of casual, fast casual and quick-service restaurant foods labeled as gluten-free contain more gluten than they should.

According to USDA and FDA regulations, packaged food can only be labeled gluten-free if its gluten level is below 20 parts per million (less than .002 percent). While this standard doesn’t technically extend to restaurant food, Dr. Lebwohl measured against this FDA standard to draw his conclusions—namely that your go-to local rigatoni might not be as wheatless as you think it is.

The (relatively) good news is, the so-called gluten-free dishes found to contain the most gluten are fairly intuitive alternatives to their wheat-based counterparts. Carb-filled favorites like pizza and pasta tend to contain the most gluten, even when touted as gluten-free. The proof? Fifty-three percent of pizza samples, 50 percent of pasta samples and 30 percent of dessert samples contained gluten, despite their gluten-free epithet. But even salads parading around as the safest gluten-free option can be dicey: Nearly 30 percent of salad samples tested positive for the presence of gluten.

Anyone with celiac disease or a serious gluten intolerance has no choice but to steer clear of wheat. But even if you’re not allergic, you might frequently reach for gluten-free options as a personal preference (maybe gluten makes you sluggish, or maybe going gluten-free helps you say “no” to leftover pizza in the conference room). Whatever your reasons for nixing this complicated protein, don’t forget to read food labels carefully, and don’t be embarrassed to ask the restaurant staff exactly how their dishes are prepared.