In-N-Out is a popular fast food chain known for its burgers, fries, and milkshakes. For those avoiding gluten, a common question is whether In-N-Out’s french fries contain gluten or not.
In-N-Out states that their french fries are not prepared with any wheat or gluten-containing ingredients. However, there is a risk of cross-contamination during processing and cooking. So while the fries themselves are gluten-free, In-N-Out does not recommend them for customers with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Ingredients in In-N-Out Fries
According to the In-N-Out website, their french fries only contain the following ingredients:
- Vegetable oil (contains one or more of the following: canola oil, sunflower oil, corn oil)
- Natural beef flavor [wheat and milk derivatives]*
So the fries themselves do not contain any gluten-containing grains like wheat, barley, or rye. The only questionable ingredient is the “natural beef flavor” which contains milk and wheat derivatives. However, according to the FDA, derivatives of wheat are not considered gluten-containing.
What are wheat derivatives?
Wheat derivatives are ingredients derived from wheat that have been processed to remove the gluten protein. Common wheat derivatives include wheat starch, wheat bran, wheat germ, and wheat protein. During processing, the gluten protein is removed, leaving behind a gluten-free wheat derivative ingredient. As long as the derivative contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten, it can be labeled “gluten-free” according to FDA regulations.
Are wheat derivatives gluten-free?
Yes, wheat derivatives are considered gluten-free ingredients because they are extensively processed to remove gluten proteins. That means products with wheat derivative ingredients like In-N-Out’s natural beef flavor can still be labeled gluten-free, even though they contain wheat-derived ingredients. The natural beef flavor used in In-N-Out fries only contains trace amounts of gluten from the wheat derivatives, well below the FDA limit of less than 20 ppm.
Risk of Cross-Contamination
Even though In-N-Out fries don’t contain gluten-based ingredients, people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity still need to use caution when eating them due to the risk of cross-contamination with other menu items containing gluten.
Cross-contamination refers to the unintentional transfer of allergens like gluten to a gluten-free food. This can happen during food processing and preparation if facilities and equipment are not properly cleaned between items. Some ways In-N-Out fries may come into contact with gluten include:
- Being fried in shared oil with breaded foods
- Being cooked in shared fryers with breaded foods
- Being stored or served alongside buns or other gluten-containing items
- Being cooked on shared grills or surfaces
- Being prepared using utensils in contact with gluten
Even trace amounts of gluten can trigger symptoms in those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. That’s why In-N-Out recommends those with gluten-related disorders avoid their fries despite the lack of gluten-containing ingredients.
How sensitive is gluten cross-contamination?
Studies show that ingesting even small amounts of gluten can cause issues for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. How much gluten causes a reaction varies from person to person:
- Less than 10 mg per day can cause symptoms or intestinal damage in those with celiac disease
- Around 100 mg per day can trigger GI and non-GI symptoms in gluten-sensitive individuals
- 200 mg per day or more usually does not cause issues in those without gluten-related disorders
So while minute amounts of cross-contamination may be safe for some, it can be very risky for those with higher sensitivity. Since the level of gluten through cross-contact at In-N-Out is unknown, strict avoidance is best.
In-N-Out’s Precautions Against Cross-Contamination
While a completely gluten-free preparation environment is difficult with a large menu containing gluten, In-N-Out states they take the following precautions to reduce the risk of cross-contamination:
- Employees follow gluten-free preparation guidelines
- Use dedicated fryers for french fries
- Use separate oil filter systems for fryers
- Utilize proper cleaning procedures between preparing gluten-free and gluten-containing foods
However, since ingredients containing gluten like buns are cooked in the same facilities and on shared grills, cross-contact may still occur. Employees try to avoid direct contact between fries and gluten-laden preparations, but trace gluten can still be present.
Are dedicated fryers 100% gluten-free?
While having dedicated fryers for french fries reduces gluten cross-contamination risk, it does not eliminate it entirely. Reasons dedicated fryers may still contain traces of gluten include:
- Fryer oil filtering systems can allow small particle transfer between fryers
- Fryer cleaning procedures may not completely remove all residual gluten
- Gluten particles may get blown around and settle into fryer oil
- Employees may accidentally add gluten-containing items into the wrong fryer
Without full separate prep areas and ventilation, 100% gluten-free cooking conditions are difficult in shared kitchens. But In-N-Out’s precautions do help minimize the gluten cross-contact risk as much as possible in a mixed menu establishment.
In-N-Out Gluten-Free Menu Options
For a lower risk gluten-free meal at In-N-Out, opting for items specially prepared without gluten-containing ingredients can help reduce cross-contamination exposure. Some menu options include:
|Hamburger/Cheeseburger||Lettuce wrap or wrapped in paper|
|Flying Dutchman||Meat patties and cheese, no bun|
|Protein Style Burger||Lettuce leaves replace bun|
|Grilled Chicken Salad||Grilled chicken on lettuce, no croutons|
|Shakes||Made with ice cream only|
When avoiding the bun, these items present less cross-contamination risk. But it remains possible due to shared grill surfaces. Those highly sensitive should advise staff to take extra precautions.
Are lettuce wraps safe?
Ordering hamburgers and sandwiches in lettuce wraps minimizes direct contact with gluten buns. However, lettuce wraps may still get cross-contaminated by:
- Being placed on same countertops or grill surfaces as buns
- Using utensils or gloves touched by wheat-based buns
- Close proximity to cooking buns causing airborne particles to settle
Asking staff to change gloves, use fresh lettuce, and ensure separates prep surfaces can further reduce the risk. But the possibility of trace gluten contamination still remains.
Testing for Gluten in In-N-Out Fries
To assess the actual level of gluten present, consumer groups and researchers have sent In-N-Out fries out for gluten testing:
- In 2010, the Celiac Sprue Association tested fries at less than 5 ppm of gluten.
- In 2013, the Gluten Intolerance Group tested fries at less than 10 ppm of gluten.
- In 2016, independent testing revealed 16 ppm of gluten in fries.
The results show variable trace levels of residual gluten well below the FDA limit of 20 ppm. But studies confirm any detectable gluten can trigger intestinal damage in those with celiac disease. Those highly sensitive should avoid despite the very low levels found in testing.
How much gluten is in ppm?
Parts per million (ppm) refers to the concentration of gluten in a food product. A finding of 20 ppm means there are 20 mg of gluten per 1 kg of that food. Here is how ppm translates into potential gluten content:
|Gluten Level in PPM||mg Gluten in 1 Serving|
|20 ppm||0.14 mg (in 7 oz serving)|
|10 ppm||0.07 mg (in 7 oz serving)|
|5 ppm||0.035 mg (in 7 oz serving)|
So while In-N-Out fries tested at 5-16 ppm, that could still represent a gluten content of 0.035 to 0.112 mg per serving. Potentially problematic for highly gluten-sensitive individuals.
Judgment for Gluten-Sensitive Diners
In summary, here are some considerations for those avoiding gluten when deciding whether to eat In-N-Out fries:
- The fries themselves do not contain gluten according to listed ingredients
- Gluten cross-contamination is likely given the shared prep areas
- Those with celiac disease or high sensitivity should avoid due to risk
- Testing shows very low ppm levels, but trace gluten may still be present
- Less sensitive individuals can likely eat without major issues
- Ordering fries “well-done” may reduce surface contamination
- Opt for lettuce wrapped burgers and other items to further reduce risk
At the end of the day, it is up to each gluten-sensitive individual to evaluate their own tolerance levels and comfort with the potential cross-contamination at In-N-Out. Extremely strict avoidance is safest, but less sensitive diners may indulge cautiously without problems.
In-N-Out french fries contain no direct gluten-based ingredients according to available information. However, the risk of gluten cross-contamination from other menu items during processing and cooking exists. While In-N-Out takes steps to minimize cross-contact, trace amounts of gluten may still get transferred to fries. Independent testing over the years has revealed very low gluten ppm levels, but any detectable gluten can potentially cause issues for those with high sensitivity or celiac disease. For safest gluten avoidance, steer clear of In-N-Out fries. But less sensitive individuals may be able to consume them in moderation with minimal reactions.