Gluten free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more people opting to avoid gluten for health or dietary reasons. For those following a gluten free diet, dining out can present challenges, as many menu items at restaurants contain gluten. Panera Bread offers a variety of gluten free options, including salads. However, there has been some uncertainty around whether Panera’s popular chicken salad is safe for gluten free diets. This article will examine Panera’s chicken salad ingredients, preparation methods, and what the company says about gluten content to help determine if Panera Bread chicken salad is gluten free.
What is Gluten and Why Do People Avoid It?
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For most people, consuming gluten is not a problem. However, for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten can cause serious health issues like inflammation, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, and more. The only treatment for celiac disease is adhering to a strict lifelong gluten free diet. People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may also benefit from removing gluten from their diets. With gluten found in many staple food products like bread, pasta, and baked goods, following a gluten free diet can be challenging. That’s why for those avoiding gluten, it’s important to carefully check ingredient labels and understand how foods are prepared.
Panera Bread Chicken Salad Ingredients
According to Panera Bread’s website, the chicken salad currently offered at their locations contains the following ingredients:
- Chicken Breast Meat
- Red Seedless Grapes
- Black Pepper
Panera Bread states that their mayonnaise contains: soybean oil, water, whole eggs & egg yolks, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, spices, lemon juice concentrate, calcium disodium EDTA added to protect flavor.
Notable Gluten-Containing Ingredients
Upon inspection, Panera’s published chicken salad ingredients list does not appear to contain any overt gluten sources like wheat, barley, rye or malt. Two ingredients that merit a closer look are the spices and high fructose corn syrup listed in the mayonnaise.
Spices can be a hidden source of gluten cross-contamination if they are processed in facilities that also handle gluten-containing grains. However, spices are typically used in very small amounts in chicken salad.
High fructose corn syrup is sometimes derived from wheat. Most major brands of high fructose corn syrup today are made from corn, but people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should still exercise caution with this ingredient when the source is unknown. Again, it’s a very small component in chicken salad.
While these two ingredients could hypothetically introduce trace amounts of gluten, they are unlikely to contain significant gluten content given how they are used in this particular recipe.
How Panera Bread Prepares Its Chicken Salad
In addition to ingredients, preparation methods are another factor to consider when evaluating gluten content. Even nominally gluten free foods can become cross-contaminated with gluten during processes like cooking, handling, and serving.
According to Panera Bread:
- The chicken is roasted in their bakery cafes daily.
- It is hand-pulled and diced in house every morning.
- The chicken salad mix is scooped and served by employees throughout the day.
While Panera does serve many baked goods containing gluten, chicken is roasted separately from these items. Precautions would need to be taken to prevent cross-contact during hand mixing of ingredients, scooping, and serving. However, Panera prepares their salad in discrete batches, as opposed to items continuously exposed like deli meats for sandwiches. Proper kitchen protocols can reduce potential for cross-contamination.
What Panera Says About Gluten Content
On their allergen information page, under the “Made without Gluten Containing Ingredients” section, Panera Bread lists their classic chicken salad. Here is their direct quote:
“These items are prepared by hand in our bakery-cafes daily. Although these ingredients DO NOT contain gluten, these items are prepared in an environment where gluten is present. Please advise associate if you have a gluten sensitivity.”
Panera confirms that as of 2023, there are no gluten-containing ingredients in their chicken salad recipe. However, they do not claim the finished product is definitively gluten free or safe for celiac disease due to potential cross-contact. The presence of wheat flour in their bakeries means there is always some degree of gluten exposure risk.
Those with celiac disease or who are highly sensitive should exercise caution when consuming. Individual tolerance levels can vary when it comes to traces of cross-contamination.
Reports from Customers with Celiac Disease
While the ingredients and Panera’s policies suggest their chicken salad is likely low gluten, customer experiences provide more clues. Here are some reports from people with celiac disease who have consumed Panera’s chicken salad:
Jessica S. wrote:
“I have eaten the chicken salad many times with no issues. I really appreciate that Panera has gluten free options for food and seems to take cross-contamination seriously.”
Will P. wrote:
“Panera Chicken Salad is my go-to gluten free meal when I’m traveling or on a road trip. I’ve never had any negative side effects. As long as you make the staff aware of your needs, they are great about changing gloves and using fresh knives to prepare your order.”
Amy L. wrote:
“I eat their chicken salad at least weekly and have never had any reactions. It gives me peace of mind knowing it’s prepared separately from their breads.”
Madison C. wrote:
“I ordered the chicken salad after being assured the ingredients were safe. Became violently ill and missed several days of work. Would not recommend for anyone with celiac.”
Lauren G. wrote:
“Have ordered the salad a handful of times. Twice it made me sick – stomach cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. The other times I seemed fine. It’s unpredictable so I avoid it now.”
Mark K. wrote:
“Used to eat the chicken salad weekly with no issues. But the last 2 times I got very sick a few hours after. It’s just not worth the risk for me anymore.”
Key Takeaways from Customer Feedback
While many report safely consuming Panera’s chicken salad, others have had reactions they attribute to cross-contamination. This aligns with Panera’s own assessment that there is some degree of gluten risk due to prep methods. Even if the salad tests below 20ppm gluten, some with celiac disease are still sensitive to trace exposure.
Reviews seem to indicate that while the salad likely contains very low gluten, it may not be 100% gluten free for the most sensitive individuals. Experiences can also vary shop-to-shop based on how strictly kitchen protocols are followed to control cross-contact.
Steps to Mitigate Risk When Ordering
For those who decide to proceed with caution, here are some tips that may help reduce exposure when ordering Panera chicken salad:
– Request new gloves to avoid cross-contact from staff handling bread
– Use dedicated gluten free prep area if the location has one
– Ask staff to change utensils and sanitize surfaces
– Order salad during slower periods to minimize kitchen cross-traffic
– Check salad before eating for croutons or other signs of contamination
– Ask about ingredients if there are any deviations from the standard recipe
– Inquire about staff celiac disease training and preventative measures
Being informed and proactive when ordering can often lower – though not fully eliminate – the already small gluten risk.
Based on its ingredients, Panera’s chicken salad recipe is intended to be gluten-free. However, the realities of food prep mean trace cross-contact can never be fully ruled out. While extremely sensitive celiacs could potentially react, most evidence suggests the salad is tolerable for many gluten-free diners when reasonable precautions are followed. Sticking to the core ingredients – chicken, celery, mayo, grapes, pecans – is safest. Customizing by adding breadcrumbs or croutons would mean the salad is no longer gluten-free.
For those with celiac disease or avoidant of gluten, the chicken salad represents one of the better possibilities for eating at Panera Bread, though not necessarily 100% risk-free. Being selective when dining out is unfortunately par for the course for those on special diets. Panera’s chicken salad checks enough boxes to potentially be included in a gluten-free diet, but as with any restaurant food, individual factors will determine what works for you.
Other Gluten Free Salad Options at Panera
For other salad choices, Panera’s Green Goddess Cobb Salad and Caesar Salad are also designated in the “Made without Gluten Containing Ingredients” section of their allergen menu. The same precautions around cross-contamination risk apply.
Some Panera soups are also labeled gluten free, like their Creamy Tomato Soup.
Patrons can build their own salad by starting with greens and adding allowable gluten free toppings like:
- Chicken (cooked separately)
- Hard boiled egg
- Blue cheese
- Feta cheese
Ask what dressings are made in-house and gluten free. Many oil and vinegar based dressings are typically safe. Avoid croutons, tortilla strips, and other bread-based components when customizing a salad.
Being Gluten Free at Panera
Overall, Panera provides some excellent choices for gluten free patrons – especially considering it is a bakery-cafe chain. While almost no restaurant can guarantee a 100% gluten free environment, Panera lists their allergen information clearly and trains staff on special dietary needs.
Following the tips in this guide when ordering chicken salad or other menu items can help make Panera an easier place to safely eat gluten free. Always make staff aware of your needs, ask questions about prep, and use your best personal judgment.
In summary, based on its ingredients and preparation, Panera Bread’s chicken salad appears to be a reasonably safe gluten-free option for most people when ordered carefully. While Panera’s kitchen practices allow for the possibility of trace gluten exposure, significant contamination is unlikely. Some with celiac disease or wheat allergies may still prefer to avoid, but many can likely consume the salad without issue. Being cautious when ordering and seasoning to taste without croutons can further reduce the small risks. For those seeking tasty gluten-free choices when dining out, Panera’s chicken salad can be a potential healthy addition to your diet. Just be aware that experiences vary, and there is always some degree of risk when gluten-free people eat restaurant foods. By understanding the considerations outlined here, each individual can make an informed choice based on their own sensitivities and comfort level.