For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, navigating menu items at restaurants can be tricky. French fries seem like a safe option, but depending on how they are prepared, they may contain traces of gluten. One popular fast food chain that offers french fries is Shake Shack. But are Shake Shack fries celiac safe? Let’s take a closer look.
What is Celiac Disease?
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. For those with celiac disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response that attacks the small intestine, causing inflammation and damage to the villi – the small, finger-like projections that line the small intestine and absorb nutrients from food. This damage over time can lead to a variety of symptoms and health issues including malnutrition, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions, and in rare cases, some types of cancer.
The only current treatment for celiac disease is adhering to a strict gluten-free diet by avoiding all foods and products that contain gluten. This includes avoiding obvious sources like bread, pasta and baked goods made with wheat flour, as well as hidden sources like soy sauce, salad dressings, soups and sauces thickened with wheat starch. Even tiny amounts of gluten can cause issues for those with celiac disease, so vigilance is required.
What Ingredients Are Used For Shake Shack Fries?
According to the Shake Shack website, their classic french fries contain just three simple ingredients:
- Vegetable oil (canola and/or sunflower oil)
At first glance, this would seem to indicate that their fries are celiac safe, as none of these three ingredients inherently contain gluten. However, when contacting Shake Shack directly via email for confirmation, this is the response provided:
“Our fries are cooked in dedicated fryers, separate from our chicken and crinkle cut fries. However, due to our open kitchen environment, we cannot guarantee they are 100% gluten-free.”
This sadly means that Shake Shack does not consider their french fries to be celiac safe due to potential cross-contamination from gluten-containing foods in the kitchen. But let’s explore a bit further what exactly this entails.
Potential Sources of Gluten Cross-Contamination
Even though the classic fries contain no glutenous ingredients, cross-contamination could potentially occur:
- From fryer oil – If previous foods fried in the oil contained gluten
- From fryer cleaning procedures – If equipment isn’t properly cleaned between glutenous and non-glutenous food preparation
- From shared surfaces – If fries come into contact with work surfaces or utensils touched by gluten-containing menu items
- From airborne particles – If gluten particles in the air settle onto fries during preparation
So while the ingredients themselves do not contain gluten, Shake Shack’s open kitchen workflow means there are multiple opportunities for cross-contamination to occur. Their caution against claiming the fries are 100% gluten-free is understandable from that perspective.
What Are Some Celiac-Safe French Fry Options?
While Shake Shack classic fries may not be considered celiac-safe, some other fast food restaurants do offer french fry options that can fit into a strict gluten-free diet:
McDonald’s fries are cooked in a dedicated fryer separate from other menu items containing gluten. Their website states:
“McDonald’s French Fries themselves are gluten-free, as they are made from potatoes, vegetable oil and dextrose. The dextrose we use to par-fry our French Fries has been highly purified, according to the FDA’s definition of gluten-free.”
However, they do caution that because they use a shared kitchen environment, the fries may come into contact with other gluten-containing ingredients. So similar to Shake Shack, they stop short of claiming the fries are 100% gluten-free.
Chick-fil-A uses a separate fryer dedicated solely to their waffle fries. Their website states:
“Our Waffle Potato Fries are prepared in canola oil in a separate fryer. Although our fries have been prepared in oil with no gluten containing ingredients, we do not recommend them for customers with Celiac disease due to the potential for cross-contact in the restaurant environment.”
So while they cover themselves with a disclaimer, they note that the waffle fries themselves contain no gluten and are cooked in a dedicated fryer, making them a good option for celiacs looking to indulge in fast food fries.
In-N-Out burgers take many precautions with their french fries to avoid cross-contamination with gluten-containing items. Their website notes:
“Our French Fries are gluten free. The oil we cook our fries in is 100% vegetable oil and is only used for frying fries. Our Associates use a separate set of utensils to cook them and we have strict procedures in place to prevent cross-contact during preparation and service.”
With dedicated fryers, utensils and preparation procedures, In-N-Out fries can be considered celiac-safe.
Five Guys uses peanut oil for their fries and does not offer any gluten-containing menu items that are fried, like breaded chicken strips or fried fish. Their website states:
“Our fries are gluten-free because they only come in contact with peanut oil in a dedicated fryer. Our procedures also prevent any cross-contact with wheat-based products during preparation and service.”
With a dedicated fryer and precautions against cross-contact, their fries are another go-to option for celiacs.
Are French Fries Generally Safe on a Gluten-Free Diet?
Plain french fries made from potatoes that are cooked in a dedicated fryer and prepared with precautions against cross-contact are generally considered gluten-free. Issues mainly arise when:
- Fryers are shared with gluten-containing foods like breaded chicken strips or fried fish.
- Utensils and preparation surfaces are shared and not properly cleaned between uses.
- Menu items contain added ingredients that may contain gluten, like certain seasonings.
So when ordering french fries at any restaurant, some questions to ask include:
- Are the fries cooked in a dedicated gluten-free fryer?
- Does the oil only fry non-gluten containing foods?
- Are there procedures in place to avoid cross-contact with gluten-containing foods?
- Do the fries contain any added seasonings or ingredients that could contain gluten?
If the answers indicate proper precautions are taken, then the fries have a very good chance of being celiac safe. But when in doubt, ask the right questions to assess your own level of comfort and risk.
Should People with Celiac Disease Eat Shake Shack Fries?
This depends on each individual’s sensitivity level and where they fall on the spectrum in reaction to small amounts of gluten. Factors like the amount of gut damage and how strictly they need to adhere to a gluten-free diet come into play.
Some celiacs follow a standard of less than 10-20ppm of gluten per day and can tolerate minor cross-contact. For them, eating Shake Shack fries occasionally may be a reasonable risk, knowing cross-contamination is unlikely but possible.
However, those with more extensive gut damage and stricter dietary needs may choose to avoid them entirely since Shake Shack does not guarantee a completely gluten-free preparation process. People who get sick from the smallest trace of gluten will likely need to steer clear.
At the end of the day, it comes down to your own individual health history and sensitivity levels in assessing if the potential reward of eating the fries is worth the risk of exposure and reaction. Err on the side of caution if unsure.
Tips for Ordering Shake Shack Fries With Celiac Disease
If you decide to go for it and try Shake Shack fries with celiac disease, here are some tips to reduce the risk of gluten exposure:
- Stick to the classic fries – other seasoned options may have added ingredients that contain gluten
- Avoid ordering gluten-containing menu items like buns and shakes at the same time to reduce overall airborne gluten particles in your space
- Ask that they change gloves, use fresh grease and clean equipment when preparing your order
- Verify your fries come in a sealed bag separate from any glutenous items ordered by others
- Use dedicated condiments and eat at the restaurant or outdoors, not in a car or space where gluten is present
- Wash your hands immediately before eating the fries
Being meticulous can help minimize exposure if you choose to eat them despite the contamination risk. Listen to your body and discontinue if any adverse reactions occur.
The Bottom Line
While Shake Shack classic fries only contain potato, oil and salt, the company does not consider them 100% gluten-free due to potential cross-contact with gluten-containing menu items in their open kitchen environment.
Some celiacs may be able to tolerate them based on personal sensitivity levels, while others will need to avoid them entirely. More stringent individuals should opt for fries from restaurants like McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out and Five Guys that use dedicated fryers and have procedures in place to prevent cross-contamination.
At the end of the day, it’s about weighing your own personal risks based on your gut health history and adhering to the diet that makes you feel your best. An abundance of caution is warranted when it comes to celiac disease.