Chicken tenders are typically made of chicken breast meat that is breaded or battered then fried. The breaded coating on most chicken tenders contains wheat flour, which means they do contain gluten. However, there are some gluten-free chicken tender options made with cornmeal or rice flour batter. Checking the ingredients list can help determine if a specific brand of chicken tenders contains gluten.
What are Chicken Tenders?
Chicken tenders, also known as chicken strips or chicken fingers, are strips of chicken breast meat that have been battered or breaded then deep fried. The tenderloin or pectoral muscle on the chicken breast is cut into long thin strips before being coated in a flour-based batter or breading.
The breading helps seal in the juices when the chicken is fried, giving the tenders a crispy outside and a moist, tender inside. Chicken tenders are a popular appetizer or main dish, especially for kids. They are served on their own, with dipping sauces, or used in other dishes like chicken sandwiches, wraps, salads, and more.
Do Chicken Tenders Contain Gluten?
The vast majority of chicken tenders contain wheat flour in the batter or breading, which means they do have gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Most breading mixes use all-purpose flour or wheat flour combined with spices, salt, garlic powder, and other seasonings to coat the chicken before frying.
Since wheat flour contains gluten, standard chicken tenders are not safe for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. The frying oil used does not contain gluten, but any contact with the flour-based breading transfers gluten to the chicken.
Why Do Chicken Tenders Contain Gluten?
There are a few reasons why most chicken tenders are made with wheat flour breading rather than a gluten-free option:
– Wheat flour creates a light, crispy coating that seals in moisture and flavor. The gluten protein helps bind the breading so it adheres to the chicken and turns golden brown when fried.
– Wheat flour is inexpensive and widely available. It’s the most common flour used in battered and breaded foods.
– Gluten-free flours like rice, tapioca and corn don’t always mimic the taste and texture of wheat flour coatings. Some brands opt for the familiar flavor and crunch of wheat flour breading.
– Many chicken tender manufacturers produce them on shared equipment that handles other wheat-based foods. So there is potential for cross-contamination even if a gluten-free flour was used.
– Chicken tenders are often mass-produced for cost efficiency. Brands adhere to traditional wheat flour recipes rather than accommodate specialty dietary needs.
Are There Gluten-Free Chicken Tenders?
While most standard chicken tenders contain gluten, there are some gluten-free options available:
– Chicken tenders coated in cornmeal – Brands like Ian’s and Foster Farms make cornmeal coated chicken tenders fried in dedicated fryers.
– Chicken tenders with rice flour batter – Tinkyada and Pillsbury both offer chicken tenders with rice flour instead of wheat.
– Chicken fingers with cassava flour coating – Ore Ida’s gluten-free chicken tenders use cassava and rice flour in the crispy coating.
– Breaded chicken tenders with gluten-free panko – Ian’s uses gluten-free panko breadcrumbs to coat chicken tenders.
– Baked unbreaded chicken tenders – Brands like Bell & Evans, Applegate Farms, and Plainville Farms sell marinated and baked chicken tenders.
When buying gluten-free chicken tenders, be sure to check the ingredients list and look for a certified gluten-free label. Also check that they are produced in a wheat-free facility or have a dedicated fryer.
What About Homemade Chicken Tenders?
Chicken tenders made from scratch at home can easily be prepared gluten-free by using cornmeal, rice flour, chickpea flour, almond flour or other gluten-free alternatives in the breading recipe.
Here are some recipe ideas for gluten-free homemade chicken tenders:
– Cornmeal and rice flour coated tenders
– Chickpea flour and almond flour tenders
– Chicken fingers with crushed gluten-free cornflakes
– Parmesan and almond flour breaded chicken
– Crispy tenders with crushed gluten-free crackers
– Tapioca flour and potato starch battered chicken
Be sure to avoid cross-contamination when breading chicken at home by using separate prep surfaces, cooking tools, bakeware, oil, etc. Frying in a dedicated fryer or fresh oil minimizes any gluten transfer as well.
What About Chicken Tenders from Restaurants?
Ordering chicken tenders when dining out with a gluten allergy can be tricky. The likelihood of gluten in restaurant chicken tenders depends on several factors:
– **Type of restaurant** – Chicken tenders at burger joints, pubs and casual dining spots often use regular flour breading. Fast food tenders likely have gluten as well. Upscale or specialty restaurants may offer gluten-free chicken options.
– **Fried vs. grilled** – Fried tenders coated in flour are not gluten-free. Grilled, baked or air-fried tenders may be a possibility.
– **Breading ingredients** – Some restaurants bread tenders in cornmeal, rice flour or panko breadcrumbs rather than wheat flour.
– **Fryer oil** – Dedicated fryers prevent cross-contact with wheat-based foods. Fresh, uncontaminated oil is needed for gluten-free results.
– **Menu labels** – If the menu identifies gluten-free dishes or has allergen labels like “G”, that’s a good sign. But always confirm with your server.
In general, it’s smart to check with the restaurant about their preparation process before ordering chicken tenders. Many chef’s are willing to accommodate requests to bake rather than fry and use gluten-free breading. Going to restaurants familiar with gluten-free diets is another good option.
Ingredients to Watch Out For
When assessing whether chicken tenders contain gluten, here are some key ingredients to pay attention to:
Flour – Wheat flour is the most common ingredient used to bread chicken tenders. All-purpose flour and enriched flour also contain gluten.
Batter – Batters often contain beer or wheat flour. Verify the batter ingredients before consuming.
Breading – Breadcrumbs, cracker meal and panko typically derive from wheat-based sources unless labeled gluten-free.
Dusting flour – Some brands dust tenders in wheat flour before battering or breading. This adds gluten.
Shared fryers – Even cornmeal breading can pick up traces of gluten if fried in shared oil with breaded foods.
Thickeners – Roux made with wheat flour or wheat-based thickeners contain gluten and may be in sauces.
Soy Sauce – Soy sauce marinades and dipping sauces may have gluten unless tamari is used. Always check.
Malt Vinegar – Malt vinegar, often in flavored mayo dips, contains gluten. Cider and wine vinegars are gluten-free.
Flavorings – Dry seasoning mixes may have maltodextrin or wheat flour as a carrier. Ask about flavoring sources.
Stabilizers – Additives like dextrins and starches could be wheat-derived. Opt for verified gluten-free brands.
What About Boneless Chicken Tenders?
Boneless chicken tenders are very similar to classic chicken tenders, but they are made from chopped and formed chicken breasts instead of whole tenderloin strips. They have a comparable ingredient profile – boneless tenders are typically breaded or battered with wheat flour the same as chicken tenders.
So unless the product is labeled gluten-free, boneless chicken tenders also contain gluten. They may even have additional ingredients like fillers and binders to help hold the chopped chicken together. Always thoroughly check the ingredients and preparation method to assess gluten content.
Are Chicken Nuggets Gluten-Free?
Chicken nuggets go through a very similar breading and frying process as chicken tenders. The chopped and shaped chicken pieces are coated in seasoned flour, battered, then fried until crispy. So the majority of chicken nuggets contain gluten for the same reasons that regular chicken tenders do.
However, there are some gluten-free chicken nuggets available made with cornmeal or other gluten-free flours. Brands like Bell & Evans, Applegate, and Tyson’s gluten-free nuggets are good options. As with tenders, check the ingredients and production details. Also look for gluten-free certification from organizations like GFCO.
What About Chicken Fingers?
Chicken fingers are essentially the same product as chicken tenders, just under a different name. The elongated strips of breast meat are breaded or battered then fried. Chicken fingers go through the identical preparation process.
So gluten content depends entirely on the recipe and ingredients used. Most chicken fingers contain wheat flour and are not gluten-free. But there are some made with cornmeal and other gluten-free alternatives. Simply check the ingredient list to confirm whether or not a particular brand of chicken fingers contains gluten.
Can You Make Chicken Tenders Gluten-Free?
Yes, there are a few simple tweaks to make traditional chicken tenders gluten-free:
– Use cornmeal, rice flour, almond flour or chickpea flour instead of wheat flour in the breading.
– Opt for a light rice flour batter rather than one with wheat flour.
– Coat tenders in crushed gluten-free cereals or crackers for crunch.
– Skip the breading and coat with olive oil, spices, and herbs before baking.
– Use freshly refined oil with dedicated fryers or cookware to prevent cross-contact.
– Choose gluten-free seasoning blends without wheat fillers.
– Serve gluten-free dipping sauces made without soy sauce or roux.
With some adjustments to the coating and cooking process, you can definitely prepare gluten-free chicken tenders at home. Just avoid ingredients with wheat, barley, rye or malt.
Should You Rinse Off Marinades and Breading?
It’s a good idea to rinse off marinades and batter from store-bought chicken tenders if you’re highly sensitive. Even if the base ingredients are gluten-free, marinades may contain soy sauce or wheat-based thickeners. Batters can also pick up traces of gluten during processing.
Give store-bought tenders a thorough rinse under cool water before cooking to remove any lingering marinade or batter residue. This prevents you from ingesting hidden sources of gluten. Be sure to use clean utensils and cooking surfaces as well to avoid cross-contact.
For homemade tenders, you can skip the rinse since you have control over the marinade and breading ingredients. Properly cleaning cooking tools and using fresh oil for frying is still important.
What About Cross-Contamination?
Cross-contamination is always a concern when preparing gluten-free foods alongside gluten-containing items. Here are some tips to avoid cross-contact when making chicken tenders:
– Use separate fryers or thoroughly clean oil if switching between breaded and gluten-free foods.
– Keep gluten-free flours in separate containers away from standard wheat flour.
– Use different dredging stations, bowls, pans, and tools for gluten-free breading.
– Wash all prep surfaces, cutlery, appliances, and hands thoroughly before and after use.
– Store gluten-free tenders sealed separately from wheat-flour coated foods.
– Use clean oil instead of reusing oil that had breaded chicken fried in it.
With proper sanitation practices and keeping gluten-free foods segregated from sources of gluten, you can feel good about the safety of your homemade chicken tenders.
Are There Health Risks with Cross-Contamination?
For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, consuming chicken tenders that have been cross-contaminated poses serious health risks. Even small traces of gluten can trigger symptoms and intestinal damage.
Potential reactions include:
– Nausea, abdominal pain, bloating
– Vomiting and diarrhea
– Severe intestinal inflammation
– Malabsorption of nutrients
– Damage to the small intestine lining
– Joint pain and headaches
– Fatigue, brain fog, numbness
– Skin rash with itching
In children, cross-contamination can cause developmental delays, behavioral issues, and stunted growth.
Over time, continued exposure to gluten can result in severe complications like osteoporosis, infertility, neurological disorders, and certain cancers.
That’s why it’s so important to take precautions to avoid cross-contact when preparing gluten-free chicken tenders at home. Dining out, always verify how restaurants prepare their chicken tenders.
What About Allergies and Sensitivities?
In addition to gluten, chicken tenders may contain other major food allergens like soy and wheat. The breading and batter ingredients could also trigger sensitivities in some individuals.
People with soy allergy need to avoid chicken tenders made with soy sauce or soy-based seasonings. Those sensitive to corn should verify that cornmeal isn’t used in the coating. Other problematic ingredients may include:
– Eggs and dairy in batter or breading
– Tree nuts like almond or coconut flour
– Nightshade vegetables such as paprika seasoning
– Shellfish like shrimp fried in same oil
Always read labels carefully and ask restaurants about their preparation methods. Many chefs are willing to accommodate various dietary needs. Opt for plain grilled tenders with oil and seasonings to avoid unwanted ingredients.
What Are Healthier Alternatives?
Baked chicken tenders are a bit healthier than the traditional fried version. Other options include:
– Grilled chicken strips seasoned with herbs
– Chicken skewers with vegetables – no breading
– Stir fries or chicken fried rice – hold the soy sauce
– Chicken lettuce wrap appetizers
– Chicken kabobs with pineapple and bell pepper
– Baked chicken parmesan – hold the cheese
– Chicken tacos on corn tortillas – no sauce
– Chicken sandwiches without bread – lettuce wrap
Focus on lean proteins like grilled chicken breast, incorporate more fresh veggies, and avoid sugary, fatty sauces for a healthier take on chicken tenders.
Most chicken tenders contain gluten due to the wheat-flour based batters and breading used in preparation. But there are some gluten-free options made with cornmeal, rice flour or other wheat-free coatings. Check labels for gluten-containing ingredients and always verify the preparation method with manufacturers or restaurants. With some simple swaps to the coating and flour used, you can definitely enjoy delicious gluten-free chicken tenders. Be extra diligent about cross-contamination and allergens to stay safe. Opting for baked or grilled tenders rather than fried can provide a healthier alternative.