Transitioning to a gluten-free lifestyle can be tricky — especially if you are particularly sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease.
Eating gluten-free means knowing the main food categories that are safe and then identifying alternatives and brands you trust for the ingredients that sometimes aren't.
One common food you'll need to think through is beans. There's bean flour, refried beans, chili, bean dip — all kinds of delicious treats made with beans. So where do they fit in?
Are beans gluten-free?
Yes. All beans, including black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, and others in their natural form do not contain gluten, however, some bean products can contain gluten-containing additives or be cross-contaminated with gluten.
Gluten is a protein complex found in wheat, rye, and barley that creates the signature strands and texture we know and love in bread. It's also used as a binder and texture-enhancer in a wide variety of commercial products[*].
There are over 400 types of beans, and all beans (and other legumes like peas, lentils, and peanuts) are naturally free from gluten.
This list includes pinto beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, cannellini beans, great northern white beans, chickpeas/garbanzo beans, kidney beans, lima beans, fava beans, navy beans, soybeans, and mung beans.
Beans are generally a great source of fiber, protein, and vitamins for anyone eating a gluten-free diet[*].
Which types of beans, legumes, and bean products are most at risk for gluten contamination?
Beans that are most at risk for gluten contamination
Canned beans are more likely to have gluten than raw beans — especially when the beans are flavored. Check to see if it has the gluten-free label, and if it has “May contain wheat”, go ahead and skip it.
Frozen Products Containing Beans
Frozen products are well-known havens for additives and preservatives that may contain gluten. In general, it's best to use extra caution when buying frozen products on a gluten-free diet and to avoid them entirely when you can.
See the label-reading section below for specific ingredients to watch out for.
Baked Beans, Chilis, and Bean Dips
The more involved a bean or chili recipe, the more likely it will have gluten. Gluten is hiding in all sorts of popular ingredients including worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke flavoring, and soy sauce.
For chilis and dips, you need to keep a close eye on the labels. If you're going to buy baked beans, there are some good options, though. B&M Baked Beans and Bush's Best Baked Beans varieties are gluten-free.
Beans in Wholesale Bins
Buying beans in bulk from bins in grocery stores carries a higher risk of cross-contamination. This could be from reusing the bins without cleaning them after storing gluten-containing ingredients or accidents that mix the products in the bins slightly (e.g. some grains of wheat in a bin of beans). This is really only an issue if you are especially sensitive, but it's something to note.
Lentils and Green Peas
Under the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration standards, lentils can contain a bit of foreign grains like wheat, barley, and rye[*]. This means companies are less strict about cross-contamination with lentils. Lentils and green peas are often roasted with barley and wheat in fields as well, which can cause cross-contamination[*].
When buying lentils, it's best to buy from a source that explicitly states their facilities are free from gluten.
Beans that are least likely to have gluten contamination
Pre-Packaged Beans Labeled Gluten-Free
Due to FDA regulations in bean packaging[*], buying certified gluten-free packages of raw beans is your best option when buying from a store. And when you make raw beans, remember to not confuse the normal side effects of beans (e.g. gas) with your gluten sensitivity!
Higher-Cost Gluten-Free Products
A 2017 study of gluten in various products found that certified gluten-free and higher-cost gluten-free products were less commonly contaminated by gluten[*]. This isn't all that surprising, but generally speaking you get what you pay for when trying to eat gluten-free.
Does washing your beans get rid of any possible gluten?
Not necessarily. While washing your beans can remove stray grains of wheat or bits of flour on the outsides, gluten is notoriously stubborn and sticky. It's not a guarantee that washing your beans will eliminate all of the potential gluten.
Use your personal gluten sensitivity to determine your habits
Your habits will be dictated by your relative sensitivity and risk. If you can get away by picking gluten-containing ingredients off of meals you eat at restaurants or home, then there is no need to check for gluten contamination in your beans — it's just overkill at that point.
On the other hand, if you are extremely sensitive to gluten, then yes, you'll need to be careful about the brands you choose and take extra precautions.
Once you identify a product or brand that works for you, make sure you write it down so you can save yourself from having to think through it again next time you want to eat that food!
Become a master at reading labels
Part of eating gluten-free is developing new habits, and the most important habit you can develop is checking the labels on everything you buy. Keep an eye out for certified gluten-free, “may contain wheat” and any of the problematic ingredients listed below.
Here are some ingredients that typically contain wheat/gluten:
- Protein additives like seitan, wheat protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and TVP.
- Texture additives like flour, emulsifiers, food starches, dextrin, maltodextrin, and vegetable gum.
- Flavor enhancers like artificial flavorings, miso, natural flavoring, smoke flavoring, and a generic names like "seasonings" or "spices".
Our favorite gluten-free bean brands
It's helpful to have a few brands that you can trust. Edison Grainery, Nuts.com, and Omena Organics all take cross-contamination very seriously and are great sources for beans, bean flour, and other legumes.
California-based Edison Grainery takes pride in their facilities being free from the "big 8 allergens". Specifically, that means their entire process is free from milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans allergens.
Nuts.com is a powerhouse in gluten-free products, with hundreds of options to choose from. They have a variety of products that are GFCO-certified, which means they meet even more stringent standards than the federal government requires.
Their site states that even their "uncertified gluten-free products are also handled on a dedicated gluten-free production line in a separate area of our warehouse".
Omena Organics is a wholesale distributor of canned beans and other organic products. They are a collection of Michigan-based farmers and producers, and while not all of their products are certified gluten-free, they can their beans in facilities that don't handle gluten products[*].
So while the options above are more thorough, if you aren't extremely gluten sensitive, then Omena is a great choice.
Rancho Gordo's mission is to help Mexican families and producers preserve local traditions through small farmer imports to the U.S. While all of their beans are naturally gluten free, they "make no special efforts, however, to keep things gluten free and it's possible that there can be some cross-contact in the fields and cleaning facilities".
This is another example of understanding what level of safety your gluten sensitivity requires. If you're not concerned about cross-contamination, then definitely check them out.
The bottom line on gluten-free beans
Beans and legumes, in their natural state, are gluten-free. They are a great source of nutrition for anyone on the gluten-free diet and there is no reason not to eat them.
That being said, if you are extremely sensitive to gluten you need to keep an extra eye on cross-contamination and keep a close eye on bean products that may have gluten-containing additives, flavor enhancers, or other problematic ingredients.