Arepas are a staple food in many South American countries like Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama. They are flat, round corn cakes that can be stuffed with various fillings both savory and sweet. Arepas are gluten-free by nature since they are made from cornmeal or corn flour. However, there are a few things to consider regarding gluten and arepas.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an immune response in the body causing inflammation and damage to the small intestine. This can lead to symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, and more. The only treatment is a strict lifelong gluten-free diet.
Corn and Gluten
Corn naturally does not contain gluten. Cornmeal and corn flour, the main ingredients in arepas, are gluten-free. Pure corn-based products will not cause issues for those sensitive to gluten or who have celiac disease. However, cross-contamination is a concern when processing corn.
If the corn is grown or processed near or with gluten-containing grains like wheat, it has the potential to pick up traces of gluten. Corn flour milled in a facility that also handles wheat would be vulnerable to cross-contamination. Whether detectable traces exist would depend on the level of gluten and the sensitivity of the individual consuming the corn product.
Arepas Are Naturally Gluten-Free
Traditionally, arepas only contain three ingredients: corn flour, water, and salt. This means they are a naturally gluten-free food. Corn flour is simply dried and ground corn kernels. When handled properly and not cross-contaminated, it will be gluten-free. Water and salt do not contain gluten either. So plain arepas made directly from corn flour with just water and salt are gluten-free.
Watch Out for Added Ingredients
Many arepa recipes call for added ingredients besides the basic corn flour, water, and salt. Common additions include:
- Oil or butter
- Onions, peppers, garlic
- Herbs and spices
When shopping for these extra ingredients, be sure to buy brands that are certified gluten-free. Some examples of problematic ingredients would be wheat flour instead of corn flour or a wheat-based spice blend. As long as all components are gluten-free, the fully assembled arepa will be also.
Beware of Cross-Contamination During Cooking
Cross-contamination is just as much of a concern in the kitchen at home. To avoid gluten exposure when cooking arepas:
- Use a clean work surface and cooking equipment not previously in contact with gluten
- Use ingredients confirmed to be gluten-free
- Wash hands thoroughly before and during prep
- Keep gluten-free items separated from other foods
Examples of potential cross-contamination include using a contaminated pan to cook arepas, cutting them on a cutting board recently in contact with bread, or adding cheese with gluten-containing additives. Just one exposure could leave traces of gluten on the finished arepas.
Arepas from Restaurants and Pre-Made Brands
Buying pre-made frozen arepas or ordering them in restaurants requires additional diligence. Always verify if a product is certified gluten-free before purchasing or consuming. Cross-contamination risks are higher in commercial facilities cooking large volumes of food. Even restaurants specializing in gluten-free fare can make mistakes.
Some brands that advertise gluten-free arepas include:
- Orogel Foods
- Jose Madrid S.A.S
- Corina Snacks
Check labels carefully for certifications from organizations like the Celiac Support Association, Celiac Sprue Association, or Gluten Intolerance Group when buying any pre-made products.
Cornmeal vs. Corn Flour
Both cornmeal and corn flour are used to make arepas. They are made from dried corn kernels ground into a fine powder. However, they vary in texture:
|Smooth, almost silky
They can usually be used interchangeably in arepa recipes. However, some cooks insist finer corn flour makes a softer arepa versus the heartier texture from cornmeal. Both are naturally gluten-free options.
Masa Arepa Flour
Masa arepa flour is another common corn-based ingredient used to make arepas. It has a few key differences from regular corn flour:
- Masa is made from corn that has been nixtamalized – soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution.
- This process allows more nutrients to be retained compared to standard cornmeal.
- Masa has a distinctive flavor and aroma.
- The texture is soft and smooth.
Since masa arepa flour originates from corn, it is gluten-free. But as with other ingredients, contamination is possible during processing and handling. Seek out certified gluten-free masa flour to be safe.
Substitute for Corn Flour
If you don’t have corn flour, you can make arepas using a few substitutions:
- Masa flour – Made from nixtamalized corn. Imparts a distinctive flavor.
- Masa harina – Extremely finely ground masa. Works well but may alter taste slightly.
- Fine cornmeal – Grind in a blender for a smoother texture.
- Instant polenta – Cooks faster than other options. Adds a richer corn taste.
Just confirm any substitute ingredients are certified gluten-free before using. Proportions may vary slightly from the original recipe when using a different type of corn flour.
Arepas for a Gluten-Free Diet
Arepas can be a tasty gluten-free addition to the diet for those with celiac disease or on a gluten-free diet. Plain corn arepas made with naturally gluten-free ingredients are safe as long as they avoid cross-contamination. When buying pre-made frozen arepas or eating out, be vigilant about checking for “gluten-free” labels.
People with celiac disease or gluten intolerance should also take care with any added fillings and toppings for arepas. Cheese, meats, veggies, beans, eggs and other gluten-free ingredients can make delicious stuffings. With proper precautions, arepas can be enjoyed worry-free.
Are Arepas Dairy-Free?
Traditionally, arepas only contain corn flour, water, and salt, making them dairy-free as well as gluten-free. However, many modern recipes incorporate butter, milk, or cheese. To keep arepas completely dairy-free:
- Use water instead of milk
- Replace butter with olive oil or coconut oil
- Opt for plant-based cheeses like cashew cheese
- Choose dairy-free stuffings like avocado, black beans, or roasted veggies
Always check labels when buying pre-made arepas, as some brands may contain milk or cheese ingredients. With simple substitutions, you can enjoy delicious dairy-free arepas.
Arepas for Vegans
To make vegan arepas:
- Use plant-based milk like soy, almond or oat milk
- Replace butter with vegetable oil
- Choose vegan cheese or omit cheese altogether
- Fill with plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, or tofu
- Ensure any packaged ingredients are certified vegan
Easy vegan substitutes exist for any non-vegan ingredients traditionally used in arepas. With some simple tweaks, you can recreate all the savory flavors of arepas on a vegan diet.
Arepas Without Corn
Since traditional arepas rely so heavily on corn as the main ingredient, avoiding corn can be tricky. Here are some ideas for corn-free alternatives:
- Cassava flour – Replace corn flour at a 1:1 ratio. Offers similar binding and texture.
- Plantain arepas – Use starchy unripe plantain pulp instead of corn.
- Nut flour – Try almond or coconut flour for grain-free arepas.
- Tapioca flour – Gluten and corn-free starch that substitutes well for corn flour.
Explore different starchy flour or starch alternatives to recreate the texture of corn. Adjust other ingredients as needed. It may take some trial and error to get the right consistency.
You can make paleo-friendly, grain-free arepas a few ways:
- Use cassava flour instead of corn flour
- Try an almond flour or coconut flour base
- Replace corn with cooked and mashed carrots, sweet potatoes, or butternut squash
- Use almond milk or coconut milk instead of dairy
- Stuff with paleo-approved ingredients like veggies, grass-fed meats, or avocado
Getting the consistency right may require some adjustments to get a smooth, bindable dough. But with the right substitutes, you can certainly enjoy arepas on the paleo diet.
Arepas with Rice Flour
Here’s how to make gluten-free arepas with rice flour:
- Substitute 1 cup rice flour for every 1 cup corn flour
- Combine rice flour with potato starch to improve binding
- Add 1 tsp xanthan gum per 1 cup rice flour for elasticity
- Use rice milk or coconut milk instead of dairy milk
- Adjust water as needed to achieve dough consistency
White rice flour, brown rice flour, or a blend works well. The xanthan gum helps mimic the stretchy texture from gluten. Rice flour arepas make a tasty gluten and corn-free alternative.
Are Arepas Keto?
Here are some tips for making keto-friendly arepas:
- Use almond flour or coconut flour instead of corn flour
- Replace milk with unsweetened nut milk or coconut milk
- Skip any starchy fillings like beans or plantains
- Stuff with fatty ingredients like cheese, avocado, or pulled pork
- Bake instead of frying in oil to reduce carbs
Low-carb vegetables, meats, and cheeses make tasty fillings. Avoid sweet toppings like fruit or honey. With the right ingredients, arepas can be adapted for a low-carb keto diet.
Gluten-Free Arepas Recipe
Here is a basic gluten-free arepas recipe:
- 2 cups pre-cooked corn flour
- 1 1⁄2 cups warm water
- 1 tsp salt
- Mix corn flour and salt in a large bowl. Create a well in the center.
- Pour water into the well and stir to combine into a sticky dough.
- Knead the dough for 2-3 minutes until smooth.
- Divide into 8 equal balls.
- Flatten each ball into a round disk shape.
- Cook arepas on a griddle or pan over medium heat for 5-6 minutes per side.
For stuffed arepas, slit open the cooked arepas and stuff with desired gluten-free fillings before serving. Enjoy these gluten and corn-free arepas!
Arepas are a naturally gluten-free food when made with corn flour or masa flour. Corn does not inherently contain gluten. However, cross-contamination is possible during processing and cooking. Care must be taken to use certified gluten-free ingredients and avoid contact with gluten when preparing arepas.
Added fillings and toppings also need to be gluten-free. With proper handling and care taken to prevent contamination, both homemade and pre-packaged arepas can be safe options for gluten-free and celiac diets. Just be sure to confirm the gluten-free status before consuming.