Are McDonald’s french fries gluten-free? Yes… and… well, no

(This AllergyEats Blog entry has been guest written by Ken Allen, a food allergic who also provides public relations services to AllergyEats.)

Questions continue to swirl around McDonald’s French fries and whether they are safe for people with gluten intolerance. Amy Ratner, associate editor of Gluten-Free Living (www.glutenfreeliving.com) made a valiant stab at the issue in the magazine’s November issue. The results of her exhaustive research are worth repeating.

The issue actually boils down more to semantics than to ingredients, Ratner reported.

Prior to 2006, the fries were generally considered gluten free. “Then Congress passed a labeling law that required all packaged food regulated by the Food and Drug Administration to always include the top eight allergens in the ingredients list. The law did not apply to food served in restaurants, including fast food eateries like McDonald’s, but the company voluntarily decided to make ingredients lists available to consumers,” Ratner reported.

That led to the realization that the oil used to par fry the potatoes before they are sent out to the individual stores contained 99 percent vegetable oil and one percent flavoring made with hydrolyzed wheat bran and other ingredients.

So wheat went on the list of ingredients, shocking many who had previously considered the fries to be safe. But as in so much of life, things aren’t always as they seem.

“The company that supplied the par fry oil had the flavoring tested at the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, a leading independent food testing lab,” Ratner reported. They found no gluten. Further testing by the same lab of the finished fries and hash browns found no “wheat-allergic residue.”

“The McDonald’s controversy demonstrated a glitch in the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act,” Ratner reported. “The law does not set a threshold for allergenic proteins. That means any food which cannot be proven to have absolutely zero protein from an allergen has to list that allergen on the label.”

The FDA is working to address this, and about a year ago proposed that foods could be labeled “gluten free” if they had 20 parts per million or less of gluten. If approved as proposed, that standard would allow McDonald’s to claim their fries are gluten-free even though the ingredients list would include wheat.

So, what is a gluten intolerant person supposed to do?

“Like many aspects of the gluten-free lifestyle, the decision regarding McDonald’s French fries and hash browns is a personal one. You have to weigh whether you are comfortable eating a product when the company that makes it says it contains wheat,” Ratner says.

Not a clearly definitive answer, but Ratner’s reporting helps us make a more informed decision.

From Paul:

Thanks Ken for that great post!

What about you? If you have Celiac, will you eat McDonald’s fries? Have you had a negative reaction from them? Are you comfortable with the proposed labeling definitions? Please share your thoughts by clicking on Comments/Reply below.

Be sure to also look for gluten-free menus, gluten-friendly certifications, and of course allergy- (and gluten-) friendliness ratings on our core site, AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com).

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Comments

    Author:
    Tom G.
    Written:


    Keep in mind that McDonald’s fries not only have the wheat issue but they also contain beef and milk. Here is the list from their website:

    French Fries:
    Potatoes, vegetable oil (canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor [wheat and milk derivatives]*, citric acid [preservative]), dextrose, sodium acid
    pyrophosphate (maintain color), salt. Prepared in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to
    preserve freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent.
    CONTAINS: WHEAT AND MILK *(Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients).

    Author:
    Laura
    Written:


    Even though the ingredients are fairly disgusting, sometimes fast food fries are the only thing you can eat. Recently my daughter and I were stuck for many hours in an airport in a foreign country. There were lots of duty free luxury goods to buy but almost no food. The food that was available was clearly off limits to celiacs. Except some McDonalds fries….good to know they are relatively safe.

    Author:
    AEPaul
    Written:


    Thanks for the additional info, Tom. I’ve been told about the “milk issue” in terms similar to that of the “wheat issue.” I can also share firsthand that my dairy allergic son wolfs down McDonald’s fries without a hint of discomfort, and his sensitivity to dairy is generally quite high. What does this all mean? I’m hoping others can shed some more light here.

    Author:
    AEPaul
    Written:


    Comment from Sarah Smith via Facebook:

    My son is highly allergic to wheat and we have never had a problem with McDonald’s french fries. We drove from MA to Texas last March and McD’s was the only place we could safely eat without worrying like crazy that we would be headed to the nearest ER. So, we will continue to enjoy McDonald’s fries.

    Author:
    Mark
    Written:


    Ditto what Tom G. said about the info on McDonald’s website. When I found this info out I stopped letting our son have Mc D’s fries. For him the soy and milk are #1 & 2 on his allergy list.

    Author:
    AEPaul
    Written:


    Mark, out of curiosity, did your son ever have a reaction? I’m not suggesting that you should or should not have made the decision you did, just trying to glean more info.

    Author:
    Mark
    Written:


    No I don’t believe he did, but in his case his allergies are not anaphalxic. His reactions would be harder to detect, but the short answer is no I never did see a reaction to McD’s.

    Author:
    Jason
    Written:


    I have had them twice, and I have gotten sick each time….

    Author:
    AEPaul
    Written:


    Jason —

    Was this from a gluten intolerance or a dairy allergy?

    Author:
    Catherine
    Written:


    My son has milk-protein intolerance. He’ll be 2 this week and we took him to McDonald’s when we were on vacation last week. He ate probably 10 – 12 fries and had a pretty severe reaction (he gets allergic colitis – blood, mucus, etc.). Although we were on vacation and I suppose he could have gotten his hands on something without me noticing, I bring most of his food and that was the only new thing he had in the 36 hours prior to the reaction subsiding. My understanding is that “hydrolyzed” means that the proteins are broken down, so perhaps for some, they’re not broken down enough? That’s just my hypothesis.

    Author:
    Ashley
    Written:


    I have yet to see any confirmation on any site there is more debate over the subject than an actual answer. I have the answer- DO NOT eat McDonalds fries! I had some last night thinking I would be fine but I woke up this morning feel like hell. So know matter what you read if you have a gluten intolerance DO NOT eat their fries.

    Author:
    Katie
    Written:


    My 7 year old daughter has been diagnosed with celiac disease for 5 years. She has been eating McDonalds french fries since her diagnosis. She is highly sensitive to gluten (is violently vomiting within the hour of eating any gluten) and has never once been sick from McDonalds french fries. Her yearly blood tests have always come back great — no traces of gluten.

    Author:
    Leslie
    Written:


    Today I ate a hashbrown in a pinch for time, and shortly thereafter experienced dibilitating cramps and nasuea. I had to go home and lie down. I researched the ingredients and assume that the oil the potato is cooked in must have residues from the nuggets and chicken patties. I am newly wheat and gluten intolerant.

    Author:
    Ellie
    Written:


    Just a quick reply to Leslie, the fries and chicken products are cooked in seperate fryers and then placed in seperate holding areas while they are packaged.

    P.s. my husband is Gluten and Wheat intolerant and has never had a problem with either McDonalds fries or hashbrowns :-)

    Author:
    Spencer
    Written:


    My son (14mos) is allergic to cow’s milk protein. His left eye got swollen after only two fries. Not to mention the severe cough that freaked out even the people around as my son was choking and wouldn’t be able to regain his breath. Sad indeed.

    Author:
    Mona
    Written:


    I have always had a gluten intolerance but it was not discovered by any of my doctors until this past August. My reactions to gluten include painful bloating, nausea and severe migraines. I can confidently say that I have not had any such reaction to McDonald’s fries.

    Author:
    Debbie
    Written:


    I have not had a reaction to either the hash browns or fries on most occassions. The one time I did I attributed it to an especially GREASY hash brown (still good none the less– I obviously ate it). I am pretty sensitive to gluten ending up with major cramping and bathroom time so I do try to avoid it at all cost. Fries still on my OK list.

    Author:
    Mary M
    Written:


    I had just had someone tell me that these fries contain gluten, so i googled the issue and found this article. I’m gluten intolerent and can handle very small trace amounts (ie cross contamination doesn’t bother me and small amounts don’t usually bother me much), and i’ve had these fries twice this week (had pain treatments and i had to fast for them and so i needed something fast afterwards and i was craving fries), and i didn’t have a reaction. Sometimes i think i do get a bit naseuous, but that can happen when i eat a lot of fat too, and obviously they have lots of fat, but if i get small fry im usually okay, when i have a gluten reaction i usually get worse effects than nauseua like bloating.

    Author:
    Dana
    Written:


    I have had reactions to McDonalds fries including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. I have a wheat allergy. Any traces of wheat will set my inner ears to itching. I had the fries yesterday as a test. Had to rush home to go to restroom, ears have been itching like crazy and I have vomited several times. I will not choose to eat these as part of my gluten free diet.

    Author:
    Brecky
    Written:


    My daughter has a gluten intolerance we just found out about. She has been doing beautifully until last night when she broke out in an itchy rash. What did she eat last night? McDonalds fries. No more McDonalds for us, I guess. Total bummer.

    Author:
    Michelle
    Written:


    I had read on other Celiac blogs that McDonald’s fries were relatively safe. I have had a craving for fries since being diagnosed last October and today,gave in….BIG mistake! I have been sick for 2 hours now and counting….definitely not safe for a Celiac sufferer. Maybe a gluten intolerant yet I now know that I stick to what is 100% proven to be GF. NOTHING is ever worth being sick nor doing any damage.

    Author:
    Sissy
    Written:


    I was in a bind last night. STARVING after 10pm, on the interstate in a rural area. I have a dairy allergy and severe celiac. (even gf bisquick causes a severe reaction) I ordered two quarter pounders without the bun and cheese(they changed their gloves and washed the tongs first) and ate about a third of my bf’s fries. I had zero colitis, nausea, or joint pain usually the first symptoms. This morning I have a VERY slight outbreak of dermatitis herpiform in the “usual” places.

    Author:
    Bob
    Written:


    Recently had a McDonald’s small fry after they told me they were cooked in a dedicated fryer (fries only). I’m a celiac and had minor upset with some diarrhea over the next couple of days. I had also had one gluten-free Woodchuck Hard Cider about an hour before the fries. Not sure if it was the fries or something else that bothered me. If I get a lot of wheat, I’ll get more severe pain and vomiting.

    Author:
    Jody Hurlburt
    Written:


    I was diagnosed with Celiac in October 2012. Today I shared some fries from McD’s with a friend. I didn’t think there was any problem–in fact, it didn’t enter my mind. However, within 30 minutes I started getting stomach pains of the type that I now know is part of my gluten response. I had eaten nothing else for several hours, so I am sure it was the fries.

    Author:
    Kim Holl
    Written:


    I am reading this thread and can’t keep but thinking since when did fries contain all of these strange ingredients? I thought fries were potatoes fried in some sort of oil with a little salt added. Who needs all these preservatives anyways? I wish that there were more fast and healthy options for us.

    Author:
    Val
    Written:


    I just recently went gluten free, due to many symptoms “indicative of gluten sensitivity”. I had also been also experiencing a nasty red rashy area on the back of my head, and also on my neck. I didn’t think of any correlation, until my rash and redness disappeared completely about a week into my gluten free diet. I thought, “Oh, I bet it was the gluten causing the rash!” Anyway, around that time, I was out and about, and really hungry, and remembered that I had read that McD’s fries were gluten free, so I stopped and had some. WITHIN HOURS of the fries, the redness and rash were back with a vengeance. I hadn’t eaten anything else at all.

    Author:
    Rachel
    Written:


    My daughter has a reaction to gulten and can eat macdonalds fries from the restrants but has a reaction when we get fries from food court macdonalds.

    Author:
    maureen
    Written:


    After reading many replies, it sounds like it may depend on the particular McDonalds. I’m sure cross contamination and actually following protocol plays a part. I don’t know how you can predict that. Theory is great, but your stomach reacts to reality. I haven’t eaten at a McDonalds in nine years and reserve it for a desperate situation.

    Author:
    kittie
    Written:


    Some McDonalds have dedicated fryers for fries, and some don’t. Then you have lazy employees who stick the fries in the wrong oil, or who don’t change their gloves before handling the fries.

    McDonalds just isn’t a safe environment for celiacs. You could be fine 10 times, and on the 11th time they could screw up. There’s just too much opportunity for disaster in their kitchen environment.

    Author:
    Sc
    Written:


    I’ve also used McDonald’s French fries when I need something quick to feed my boys who have several food allergies. My oldest has a severe allergy to dairy and has been eating them with no problems. While we get them on occasion, I’m trying to figure out if we should consider them unsafe.

    Author:
    Dianna Haussler
    Written:


    I am a Celiac and ALWAYS have an issue when eating McDonalds fries and/or Hash Browns..I soooo miss eating them. :-(

    Author:
    Tasia
    Written:


    I am gluten free and can usually eat fries, including McDonald’s. I had some yesterday and am in the bed recovering right now. The fries we the same size but were mostly shorter in bits and more limp than before. They tasted different but I didn’t pay much attention. I am paying for it today. I am checking them off my list. My side effects btw from gluten, especially a sizeable amount, are sinus pressure and mucous production, nausea, bowel elimination followed by vomiting, and major mood swing to very low. I developed a sensitivity over the years, I guess. Breads, italian, and gluten pizza were my favorite foods. But they were and not worth the damage. Beware!

    Author:
    Kat
    Written:


    I have eaten at McDonalds for years before and after diagnosis with celiac in early 2008. As the years have gone on and I’ve been gluten free, my reaction has turned to vomiting from large quantities and headaches, stomach cramps and sore throat from small amounts.

    That being said, the fries have never bothered me. However when getting the big breakfast platter, I would eat the hash browns. Probably 80% of the time I would end up feeling sick. Eventually I looked up the ingredients and realized it had wheat (supposedly). So why do the hash browns affect me and not the fries? I have no idea. But I’ve stuck with fries yes and hash browns no for over a year now.

    Author:
    Amy
    Written:


    I have a wheat intolerance. I rarely ever stop at McDonald’s but the Shamrock Shake was calling to me yesterday. I had my kids with me who said that they wanted french fries too. I thought that I would be ok and so I ate half a bag of a small order of fries. About 6 hours later I began to have extremely bad cramping with really painful loose movements. Then this morning slight cramping and blood was present. Needles to say, I will not be ordering any more french fries from McDonalds(the whole experience makes me want to give up any deep fried food, b/c of the potential that the oil may have gluten in it)!! Sort of ruined my day!

    Author:
    Ryan
    Written:


    I tested McDonalds fries for gluten to 20 ppm using a Glutentox test kit. The results came back negative meaning that there was less than 20 ppm of gluten present. Although there may be trace ingredients of wheat, it is possible that the concentration is so minute that, most often, they do not at effect people with celiac.
    Check out the test I did here at http://www.foodtestnetwork.com/gluten_mcdonalds_entries

    Author:
    Joan
    Written:


    The reason I wanted to read this blog was to find out if there was gluten in McDonald’s French fries. The thought had never crossed my mind before because I had eaten them with no adverse effects. However the last two times I’ve had them I felt nauseated and as if all digestion had stopped and they were just sitting in my stomach. I had them today with a coke and it’s now six hours later and I still have indigestion. So I would have to say that maybe the amount of hydrolyzed wheat protein varies from time to time?
    Also it’s amazing what you learn from your body while you’re eating something you shouldn’t be eating, even if you’re unaware of it. I once had some cottage cheese and peaches, thinking that both were safe. After I swallowed the first bite, the next one wouldn’t go down! So I drank some water trying to force it down, thinking that surely there’s no wheat in cottage cheese! The answer that I came to find out: Almost always! Listen to your body. If food doesn’t want to go down your throat, stop eating it! Interesting.

    Author:
    Kailey
    Written:


    I have Celiac’s, and since being diagnosed, i have had McDonald French fries a handful of times- only a few at a time (taken from my son’s Happy Meal.). Each time, I’d have maybe 4-5 fries- and had some mild stomach cramping. This past Tuesday, I ordered a small French fry order for myself- huge mistake! I was sick with diarrhea, headaches and fatigue for a day and a half. That was enough to scare me out of ever eating a FF from there again!

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