Are celiacs allowed soy?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system attacks the small intestine, causing inflammation and damage to the villi – the small, finger-like protrusions that line the intestine and absorb nutrients. This damage makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients, which can lead to symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal pain, malnutrition and more.

The only treatment for celiac disease is following a strict gluten-free diet, avoiding all foods and products containing gluten. This means celiacs need to pay special attention to ingredient labels, as even trace amounts of gluten can cause issues. With so many potential sources of hidden gluten, celiacs often wonder about the safety of soy. Soybeans themselves are naturally gluten-free, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all soy products are safe. Let’s take a closer look at whether celiacs can eat soy.

Are Soybeans Gluten-Free?

Yes, soybeans themselves are naturally gluten-free. Soybeans are legumes, not grains, so they do not contain gluten. However, soybeans and soy-derived ingredients are commonly processed in facilities that also handle wheat and other gluten grains. This means there is a risk of cross-contamination if adequate precautions are not taken.

For soybeans and soy-based foods to be considered gluten-free, they must be specifically produced and processed in a gluten-free facility. Gluten-free soybean crops should also be transported and stored separately from other grains to prevent contamination. If proper procedures are followed, soybeans and products made directly from soybeans, like edamame, tofu and tempeh, are safe for celiacs.

Soy Sauce

Most traditional soy sauces are brewed from a combination of soybeans and wheat, making them unsafe for celiacs. However, there are gluten-free tamari and soy sauce alternatives made with just soybeans and no gluten grains. When shopping, check the label to make sure the product is certified gluten-free.

Soy Milk

Plain soy milk is generally safe for celiacs, as it’s made by soaking soybeans and grinding them with water. Opt for brands that are certified gluten-free to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Avoid flavored varieties, as these may contain malt or barley extracts.


Plain tofu curd made from soybean curds and water should be gluten-free. But beware of flavored, baked, fried or processed tofu products, as these may contain gluten-based ingredients. Your safest bet is choosing plain tofu from brands that are certified gluten-free.


Edamame are immature, green soybeans. Since they don’t contain any gluten grains, edamame are naturally gluten-free. Make sure any processed or flavored edamame products are certified gluten-free as well.

Soy Protein

Isolated soy protein made directly from soybeans should not contain gluten. But soy protein is commonly added to many processed foods, from veggie burgers to protein bars, so it’s important to check the label. Call the manufacturer if you have any concerns about ingredients or labeling.

Textured Vegetable Protein

Textured vegetable protein (TVP) is often used as a meat alternative and made from soy flour. While soy flour starts out gluten-free, cross-contamination is common during processing. Look for TVP products that are certified gluten-free for safety.

Hydrolyzed Soy Protein

Hydrolyzed soy protein is used as a flavor enhancer in soups, sauces and other processed foods. It is made by chemically or enzymatically breaking down soy protein isolates. Hydrolyzed soy protein should be gluten-free, but check labels since it’s commonly added to products containing gluten.

Soy Lecithin

Soy lecithin is an emulsifier extracted from soybean oil. It’s commonly added to many packaged foods. Soy lecithin is generally considered gluten-free, but confirm with manufacturers, especially if the product also contains wheat ingredients.

Soy Flour

Soy flour is made from roasted, ground soybeans. Pure soy flour should not contain gluten. However, many commercial soy flours are produced in facilities that also process wheat, so there’s an increased risk of cross-contamination. Look for soy flour from brands that are certified gluten-free.

Soy Product Gluten-Free?
Plain soybeans Yes
Edamame Yes
Tofu Yes, if plain and unprocessed
Tempeh Yes
Soy sauce No, unless labeled gluten-free
Soy milk Yes, if plain and certified gluten-free
Soy protein isolate Yes, if uncontaminated
Textured vegetable protein No, high risk of contamination
Hydrolyzed soy protein Yes, but check labels
Soy lecithin Yes
Soy flour No, high risk of contamination

Other Foods to Watch Out For

While soy is generally safe in its pure, unprocessed form, celiacs also need to watch out for these hidden sources of gluten:

  • Soy sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Miso
  • Flavored tofu products
  • Processed meat alternatives
  • Imitation bacon bits
  • Breaded or fried items
  • Canned soups and gravies
  • Flavored nuts
  • Licorice
  • Certain prescription drugs
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements

Always thoroughly read ingredient labels, even on products labeled “gluten-free.” While a product may be gluten-free, it could be contaminated with gluten during manufacturing. Your safest bet is choosing whole, unprocessed soy foods verified as gluten-free when possible.

Cross-Reactivity with Soy

In rare cases, people with celiac disease may also react to soy. This is known as cross-reactivity. Someone who is sensitive to gluten may also have an immune reaction when exposed to proteins in other foods that are similar in structure, like soy and corn.

Symptoms of soy cross-reactivity are similar to gluten exposure and may include bloating, diarrhea, nausea, and intestinal damage. Soy cross-reactivity appears to be most common in children with celiac disease. Not all celiacs react to soy – the research is mixed. Those who experience symptoms may need to avoid soy for a period of time.

Testing for Soy Allergies

If you suspect you may have a soy allergy in addition to celiac disease, see your doctor. They can administer blood and skin prick allergy tests to soy proteins. Eliminating soy for 2 to 4 weeks under medical supervision can also help reveal if you have a soy allergy.

For celiacs without a soy allergy, incorporating some traditional, whole soy foods into a gluten-free diet can provide nutrients like:

  • Protein
  • Fiber
  • Vitamin K
  • Folate
  • Thiamine
  • Riboflavin
  • Iron
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium

Eating a variety of healthy, naturally gluten-free foods helps ensure celiacs get the wide range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients needed.

Is Soy Bad for You?

Some people advocate avoiding soy due to concerns like:

  • Thyroid problems
  • Hormonal issues
  • Fertility problems
  • Cancer risk
  • Cognitive issues

However, most major health organizations consider soy safe when consumed in normal food amounts, especially when replacing less healthy proteins. Moderate portions of whole soy foods like tofu, tempeh, edamame and soy milk appear safe for most healthy adults as part of a balanced diet.

Those with soy allergies or thyroid issues may need to minimize or avoid soy intake under a doctor’s direction. As with any specific food, it’s wise not to overdo soy consumption. But incorporating some traditional soy foods can be safe for celiacs looking for healthy plant-based protein options.

Health Risks of Isolated Soy Protein

While small amounts of whole soy foods are likely fine for most people, more processed forms like isolated soy protein powder are controversial. Large doses of isolated proteins and soy isoflavones from supplements may impact hormones and other bodily processes.

Until more research is done, it may be wise for celiacs to get soy nutrition from traditional whole food sources that provide protein in a balanced matrix with vitamins, fiber and healthy fats. If you choose to use isolated soy proteins, aim for organic, non-GMO varieties and pay attention to any effects.

Is Soy Gluten-Free? The Takeaway

In summary, here are some key points about soy for celiacs:

  • Whole, unprocessed soybeans and foods like tofu and edamame are naturally gluten-free.
  • Look for soy products verified as gluten-free, as cross-contamination is common.
  • Soy sauce, soy flour and textured vegetable protein often contain gluten.
  • Always check labels on packaged foods containing soy.
  • Some celiacs may also react to soy due to cross-reactivity.
  • In moderation, soy can be a healthy plant-based addition to a gluten-free diet. But soak, sprout or ferment soy to make it more digestible.
  • If you have soy allergy symptoms, get medically tested and eliminate soy under a doctor’s guidance.

While soy-based ingredients are widely used in processed foods, celiacs can enjoy traditional soy foods like edamame, tofu and tempeh as part of a balanced gluten-free diet, provided they come from a trusted gluten-free source. Be cautious of highly processed forms of soy and products with potential cross-contamination. When in doubt, check with the manufacturer.


In moderation, unprocessed soy foods that are certified gluten-free can be safe and healthy options for celiacs looking for plant-based proteins, nutrients and variety in their diet. Always thoroughly check labels, even on foods labeled as “gluten-free” to help reduce the chance of exposure to hidden gluten. By being an avid food label reader and choosing whole, traditionally fermented soy foods, celiacs can safely enjoy the benefits of soy.

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