Does nacho cheese sauce have gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine. This can lead to symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, fatigue, headache, anxiety, and more. Approximately 1% of Americans have celiac disease, while 6-7% have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Many people following a gluten-free diet are unclear about whether nacho cheese sauce contains gluten. Nacho cheese sauce is a smooth, thick, orange-colored sauce commonly used for nachos, tortilla chips, tacos, and more. It provides a rich, tangy cheese flavor. Prefabricated nacho cheese sauce can be purchased in jars, cans, or small plastic tubs in the chip aisle at grocery stores. However, many restaurants and food stands make their own nacho cheese sauce from scratch.

The primary ingredients in basic nacho cheese sauce are cheese, milk, spices, and emulsifying agents. So at first glance, it would appear that nacho cheese sauce should be gluten-free. But for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it’s essential to evaluate each individual ingredient and the risk of cross-contamination during processing.

This article will provide a detailed analysis of the potential sources of gluten in nacho cheese sauce and give definitive answers about which types of nacho cheese sauce are gluten-free and which are not.

Gluten-Containing Ingredients in Nacho Cheese Sauce

Nacho cheese sauce is typically made by combining melted cheese with milk and spices like paprika and cumin. Most cheese and milk are gluten-free ingredients. Paprika and many other spices are naturally gluten-free as well. However, there are a few common ingredients added to some nacho cheese sauce recipes that do contain gluten:

Wheat Flour

Some nacho cheese sauce recipes call for the addition of wheat flour to thicken the sauce. Since wheat flour contains gluten, any nacho cheese made with wheat flour is not gluten-free.


Maltodextrin is an additive derived from corn, rice, or potato starch. Although the corn, rice, and potato starches are gluten-free, maltodextrin is sometimes produced using wheat. When wheat is used, the maltodextrin contains gluten.

Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein

Hydrolyzed wheat protein is used as a flavor enhancer in some nacho cheese sauces. It is extracted from wheat gluten, so it contains gluten.

Modified Food Starch

Some types of modified food starch are made from wheat. Unless the source is specified as corn, rice, or potato starch, assume modified food starch contains gluten.

Soy Sauce

A few nacho cheese recipes include a splash of soy sauce for added flavor. Most soy sauces contain wheat, making them unsuitable for a gluten-free diet.


A small number of gourmet nacho cheese sauce recipes call for beer. Since beer is made from gluten-containing grains like barley and rye, these recipes would not be gluten-free.

So in summary, wheat flour, maltodextrin, hydrolyzed wheat protein, modified food starch, soy sauce, and beer are potential sources of gluten in nacho cheese sauces. Reading the ingredient list carefully and contacting the manufacturer is crucial when determining whether a prepackaged nacho cheese sauce is gluten-free.

Risk of Cross-Contamination

Even if all of the individual ingredients in a nacho cheese recipe are gluten-free, there is still a risk of cross-contamination affecting the final product. Cross-contamination occurs when gluten-containing foods come into contact with gluten-free foods, transferring over trace amounts of gluten.

Cross-contamination is most likely to happen on shared equipment and in facilities that also process gluten-containing items. For example, if a facility uses the same equipment to produce wheat-based and gluten-free nacho cheese sauces, residual gluten could get into the gluten-free batches.

It’s also possible for cross-contamination to occur through shared utensils, surfaces, fryer oil, etc. Employees handling gluten-containing ingredients may inadvertently transfer gluten to the gluten-free nacho cheese sauce through their hands, clothing, and tools.

For this reason, it’s important to choose nacho cheese sauces produced by trusted gluten-free brands in dedicated gluten-free facilities. Many manufacturers explicitly state “gluten-free” on the label and note that the product was made in a gluten-free facility. However, avoid nacho cheese sauces with advisory labels indicating the risk of cross-contamination, like “may contain wheat.”

Gluten-Free Brands of Nacho Cheese Sauce

Here are some confirmed gluten-free brands that produce nacho cheese sauce:


Frito-Lay states that all Tostitos nacho cheese sauces are formulated to be gluten-free. They do not contain wheat, barley, rye, or oats as ingredients. Tostitos nacho cheese sauces are produced in facilities that only handle gluten-free foods, eliminating the risk of cross-contamination.


Jarlsberg nacho cheese sauce is labeled as gluten-free and is made in a dedicated dairy facility that only processes gluten-free products. It’s a good option for those with milk protein allergies too.

Tribe Foods

Tribe Foods makes a line of gluten-free and dairy-free vegan nacho sauces in flavors like queso blanco, nacho cheese, and ranchero. They are produced in a peanut-free and gluten-free facility.


Amy’s offers organic gluten-free rice cheese sauce that can be used as nacho cheese sauce. It’s also dairy-free. Amy’s states the product is processed in a dedicated gluten-free facility with meticulous sanitation procedures.

Green Valley Creamery

Green Valley Creamery lactose-free cream cheese can be used to make easy homemade gluten-free and dairy-free nacho cheese sauce.


Violife makes 100% vegan and dairy-free nacho cheese sauce that is certified gluten-free. It’s flavored with nooch (nutritional yeast) and free of allergens.

So in summary, many major brands now offer pre-made gluten-free and allergen-friendly nacho cheese sauces. Purchasing from trusted gluten-free companies is the safest option. Of course, homemade nacho cheese sauce is always an alternative too.

Homemade Gluten-Free Nacho Cheese Sauce

Making your own nacho cheese sauce at home enables you to control all of the ingredients. Here is a simple gluten-free recipe:


– 1⁄4 cup cassava flour
– 1 tablespoon cornstarch
– 1 1⁄2 cups milk or non-dairy milk
– 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
– 1⁄2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
– 2 tablespoons butter or vegan butter
– 1 teaspoon onion powder
– 1 teaspoon garlic powder
– 1 teaspoon paprika
– 1⁄2 teaspoon salt


1. In a medium pot, whisk together the cassava flour and cornstarch. Gradually whisk in the milk until smooth and lump-free.

2. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens, about 5-10 minutes.

3. Reduce heat to low and stir in the cheeses until completely melted and smooth.

4. Remove from heat and stir in the butter, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika and salt.

5. Serve sauce warm or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate up to one week. Reheat in the microwave or on the stovetop before serving.

The benefits of homemade gluten-free nacho cheese sauce are that you have full control over the ingredients and avoid any risk of cross-contamination from manufacturing facilities. It also allows you to modify the recipe to be dairy-free by using non-dairy milk and vegan cheese.

Commonly Asked Questions

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about whether nacho cheese sauce is gluten-free:

Is store-bought nacho cheese sauce gluten-free?

It depends. You must read the label carefully. Many major brands like Tostitos and Jarlsberg make gluten-free pre-packaged nacho cheese sauce. But some store-bought varieties do contain gluten, especially cheaper generic brands.

What about the nacho cheese at movie theaters and baseball stadiums?

These mass-produced nacho cheese sauces are often thickened with wheat flour, making them unsafe for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. You’ll need to contact the venue to find out their specific gluten-free options.

Is homemade nacho cheese sauce gluten-free?

Yes, homemade nacho cheese is naturally gluten-free if you use all gluten-free ingredients. Substitute cassava or rice flour for any wheat flour.

Can I use regular processed cheese for gluten-free nachos?

Sadly, many brands of processed cheese slices and spreads contain ingredients derived from wheat, barley, and malt. Opt for certified gluten-free cheese slices instead.

What about boxed mac and cheese powdered cheese sauce?

These powdered cheese sauces typically contain wheat-based ingredients. Make sure to choose brands that are certified gluten-free if using for nachos.

Is liquid artificial cheese product gluten-free?

Sometimes, but you have to read the label carefully. Many contain hydrolyzed wheat protein as an additive.

So in summary, you can’t assume nacho cheese sauces are gluten-free without verifying the ingredients. Your safest options are homemade sauce and pre-made sauces from gluten-free brands.


Determining whether nacho cheese sauce contains gluten requires careful inspection of the ingredients list and manufacturer information. Wheat flour, maltodextrin, hydrolyzed wheat protein, and modified food starch often contribute gluten to nacho cheese sauce recipes. Cross-contamination is also a risk in facilities handling gluten-containing foods.

To be safe, choose nacho cheese sauces marked “gluten-free” on the label and produced by trusted brands in dedicated gluten-free facilities. Or make your own gluten-free nacho cheese sauce at home by subbing cassava flour for wheat flour and using all gluten-free ingredients. With the right choices, you can safely enjoy rich, cheesy nacho sauce on a gluten-free diet.

Leave a Comment