For people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, dining out can be challenging. With cross-contamination being a constant concern, it’s important to know which restaurant menu items are safely gluten-free.
Panda Express is a popular fast casual Asian restaurant chain with over 2,000 locations across the United States. With a focus on Chinese-American cuisine, Panda Express offers favorites like orange chicken, honey walnut shrimp, and chow mein.
So what can you eat at Panda Express if you’re gluten-free? Here are some quick answers to common questions:
- Does Panda Express have a gluten-free menu? No, they do not have a dedicated gluten-free menu.
- Do they have gluten-free soy sauce? No, regular soy sauce contains wheat.
- Can you get steamed dishes? Yes, steamed entrées can be prepared gluten-free.
- Are there gluten-free sides? Yes, a few sides are gluten-free.
While Panda Express does not offer a specific gluten-free menu, there are still some gluten-free options available with careful choices. Certain entrées, sides, and sauces can be prepared gluten-free. However, cross-contamination is possible due to shared prep areas and cooking equipment.
About Gluten and Celiac Disease
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It acts as a glue that helps food maintain shape and texture. For most people, gluten does not cause any issues or negative health effects.
However, for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine. This can lead to symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating, fatigue, headache, anxiety, and an itchy skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis.
The only treatment for celiac disease is strictly and completely avoiding all foods and products containing gluten. Even tiny amounts of cross-contamination can cause issues. This makes dining out very challenging for those living gluten-free.
Who Needs to Avoid Gluten?
There are three main groups of people who require a 100% gluten-free diet:
- Celiac disease – An autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Approximately 1% of the population has celiac disease.
- Non-celiac gluten sensitivity – Experiencing symptoms when consuming gluten, without having celiac disease. Up to 13% of the population may have NCGS.
- Wheat allergy – An allergic response triggered by wheat proteins, separate from a gluten reaction. Can cause anaphylaxis in severe cases.
For these groups, eating gluten-free is not a preference or lifestyle choice – it is a medical necessity. Consuming gluten can have serious detrimental effects on the health and quality of life for those with celiac disease, NCGS, or a wheat allergy.
What Menu Items Are Gluten-Free at Panda Express?
While Panda Express does not have a dedicated gluten-free menu, there are some gluten-free options that can be customized. With careful choices and questions, certain entrées, sides, and sauces can be prepared gluten-free.
The following main entrées at Panda Express can be prepared gluten-free:
- Steamed chicken breast
- Steamed shrimp
- Steamed vegetables
- Steamed tofu
Panda Express prepares their steamed dishes without soy sauce or other gluten-containing ingredients. Be sure to request no sauce and confirm with the staff that it will be prepared plain.
These sides can be made gluten-free at Panda Express:
- Mixed veggies
- Steamed broccoli
- Chow mein noodles (verify they are 100% rice noodles)
- White rice
- Brown rice
Sides like super greens, eggplant tofu, and chow mein are cross-contaminated and not safe for a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-Free Sauces and Seasonings
Ask for these sauces and seasonings on your gluten-free meal:
- Soy sauce is NOT gluten-free at Panda Express
- Sweet and sour sauce
- Hot mustard sauce
Be aware that soy sauce always contains wheat, so is not safe when gluten-free. Other sauces like teriyaki and honey walnut shrimp sauce contain gluten.
What Menu Items Are Not Gluten-Free?
While there are some gluten-free options, many dishes at Panda Express are off-limits for a gluten-free diet. Here are some menu items that contain gluten:
- Orange chicken
- Honey walnut shrimp
- Kung pao chicken
- Broccoli beef
- Chow mein
- Eggplant tofu
- Chicken egg rolls
- Fortune cookies
- Teriyaki chicken
- Beijing beef
- Mushroom chicken
- Black pepper chicken
- String bean chicken breast
These dishes all contain soy sauce, wheat-based ingredients, or are cross-contaminated during preparation and cooking. They should be avoided on a gluten-free diet.
Even if you order steamed or fresh prepared menu items at Panda Express, there is still a risk of cross-contamination with gluten. Here are some things to be aware of:
- Shared prep areas and utensils – All ingredients are prepped in the same area.
- Shared oil – Many items are cooked in the same woks and cookware.
- Shared cooking tools – reused chopsticks, tongs, etc.
- Shared surfaces – prep counters, tables, etc.
With so much potential for cross-contact, severe celiac patients may want to avoid Panda Express. For those not as sensitive, being careful with orders and asking questions can help mitigate the risk.
Tips to Reduce Cross-Contamination
If you need to be gluten-free, consider these tips when ordering at Panda Express:
- Request fresh gloves and clean utensils
- Opt for steamed dishes rather than fried
- Avoid busy high-volume times
- Ask about ingredients and preparation
- Confirm dishes will be prepared plain
- Ask for new, unopened packages of food
Informing staff about your gluten allergy can help them take extra care. However, even with precautions, cross-contamination may still occur.
Should You Trust Panda Express for Gluten-Free?
Panda Express makes it clear on their website that they cannot guarantee a 100% gluten-free or allergen-free environment. With shared prep and cooking areas, cross-contact is highly likely.
Those with celiac disease or wheat allergies that are highly sensitive need to use extreme caution when considering Panda Express. Despite their best efforts, traces of gluten could still be present in any dish.
However, Panda Express notes:
“Guests who are sensitive to gluten can enjoy our steamed entrees, mixed veggies, steamed broccoli, white rice, brown rice, and chow mein noodles (request chow mein noodles prepared separately).”
While not ideal for celiac disease, Panda Express may be manageable for those with gluten sensitivities who are less prone to reaction from cross-contact. Careful ordering of steamed dishes and sides can allow for a relatively safe gluten-free meal.
Gluten-Free Dining Tips for Panda Express
If you need to avoid gluten, keep these tips in mind when dining at Panda Express:
- Review the menu online first and plan your order
- Tell staff you have a gluten allergy when ordering
- Request steamed dishes without sauce
- Verify rice noodles are 100% rice and no wheat
- Ask for fresh gloves, utensils, and clean surfaces
- Avoid fried items and anything containing soy sauce
- Check that sauces and seasonings are gluten-free
- Beware of cross-contact with wheat-based dishes
With smart choices and precautions, Panda Express can be an option for gluten-free diners. But those highly sensitive should use caution due to the high risk of cross-contamination.
Gluten-Free Fast Casual Dining Options
If you are looking for gluten-free fast casual dining, Panda Express is not your only choice. Here are some other restaurant chains that offer gluten-free menus and options:
Chipotle Mexican Grill offers a range of tacos, burrito bowls, salads, and sides that can be customized for gluten-free. Just avoid flour tortillas.
Build your own gluten-free pizza at Blaze Pizza with gluten-free crusts, sauces, and toppings. Their pizzas are prepared on separate surfaces.
This Mediterranean chain has a large gluten-free menu including entrees, salads, sides, and dressings marked with GF labels.
Burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and bowls can all be made gluten-free when you choose corn tortillas and avoid flour options.
Build custom salads and bowls choosing certified gluten-free dressings and toppings. Just avoid croutons.
Another Mediterranean option, Cava labels gluten-free menu items and takes care to avoid cross-contact.
The Bottom Line
Those with celiac disease, NCGS, or wheat allergies need to eat 100% gluten-free at all times, including when dining out. This means avoiding any potential sources of gluten exposure.
While Panda Express offers some dishes that can be prepared gluten-free, the high risk of cross-contamination makes it a questionable choice for sensitive individuals.
With careful ordering, those less sensitive may be able tolerate steamed dishes and sides from Panda Express. But caution is still advised.
For a safer option, choose a restaurant with dedicated gluten-free menus and prep procedures. While not 100% risk-free, these gluten-free-friendly chains are a better option for peace of mind.