Whether you’re trying a new food plan or testing an elimation diet that doesn’t involved gluten, you might have asked yourself, wait, is coffee gluten-free? Well, the answer is a bit more complicated than yes or no. But here’s some good news right off the bat: If you’re giving up gluten, you won’t necessarily have to give up your morning cup of joe. But you will probably have to say so long to that pumpkin spice latte. Don’t worry; we’ll elaborate.
Coffee Can Be Contaminated at the Processing Stage
As Julie Stefanski, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, explains, coffee is naturally gluten-free, and would only be a potential source of gluten if there was contamination from wheat, rye or barley. But that’s where it gets tricky. Although plain coffee is technically gluten-free, the beans may have been contaminated if they were processed with equipment in a facility that also handled products with gluten. So if you’re concerned about this, you may want to become your own barista and buy plain, organic coffee beans to grind fresh at home.
Gluten Contamination Can Also Happen at the Café
Keep in mind, cross-contamination can also happen at restaurants and cafes, especially if they are using the same coffee maker to brew all types of coffee, including flavored. For example, Starbucks’ flavored coffee drinks like the PSL can’t be considered gluten-free because of the possibility of cross-contamination from other products, plus the ingredients may vary from store to store. So stick to a plain coffee or latte when ordering here.
Also, if you add in creamer, syrups and sugar, you’re upping the chances of gluten sneaking in; some powdered creamers could have gluten, especially the flavored kinds, because they include thickening agents and other ingredients that contain gluten, such as wheat flour. So remember to always check ingredient labels carefully.
Avoid Gluten Contamination with Specialty Brands
Big-name brands like Coffee-Mate and International Delight are considered gluten-free, but you also might want to try a speciality brand like Laird Superfood creamers, which are dairy-free, vegan and gluten-free, if you’re worried about this type of contamination or if you are extra sensitive to trace amounts of gluten.
As for pre-flavored coffee blends (think chocolate hazelnut or French vanilla), they are generally considered gluten-free. Stefanski says that it's rare to have artificial flavorings in the U.S. that are made from barley or wheat. Plus, the amount of flavoring with gluten in these blends would be very small in comparison to an entire pot of brewed coffee, she adds. (According to the current U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, a product can be labeled "gluten-free" if it has 20 parts per million of gluten or less.)
Unfortunately, the flavorings used to make these blends could have an alcohol base, which is typically derived from grains, including gluten ones. And while the distillation process should remove the gluten protein from the alcohol, it can still cause a reaction for those who are super sensitive, even though the amount of gluten is teeny tiny. But if plain, black coffee just isn’t your jam, try Expedition Roasters coffees, which are certified gluten- and allergen-free and come in Dunkin’ Donuts-worthy flavors like coffee crumb cake, churro and blueberry cobbler.
Also, stay away from instant coffee. In a study published in Food and Nutrition Sciences in 2013, instant coffee was found to cause a gluten response in people with celiac disease because it was cross-contaminated with traces of gluten. The researchers concluded that pure coffee was probably safe for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. If instant coffee is too convenient for you to ditch, try Alpine Start, which is a gluten-free instant coffee that’s available in coconut creamer latte and dirty chai latte flavors, in addition to regular.
Gluten and Coffee Could Be a Bad Combination for Sensitive Stomachs
But gluten isn’t the only thing you may need to worry about. Since folks with celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity already have a sensitive digestive system, the caffeine in coffee can easily irritate it, and cause gastrointestinal symptoms similar to an adverse reaction to gluten like diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping. Coffee is known to have these effects on people with “normal” digestive systems, so it may be more pronounced in people with gluten intolerance.
“Keep in mind that especially for newly diagnosed individuals with celiac disease or those still struggling to figure out their digestive issues, overall digestion may not be working well,” Stefanski says. “Even if the coffee itself doesn't contain gluten, the acidity of coffee may cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, reflux or even diarrhea. Diluting coffee with warm lactose-free milk or almond milk [a one-to-one ratio] can help with symptoms if you just can't kick your coffee habit.
If you’re sticking to a gluten-free diet but are still experiencing symptoms and think coffee might be the culprit, try eliminating it for a week. To get your caffeine fix, sip black or green tea. After a week, try introducing coffee back into your diet, one cup at a time and monitor the effects.