If you are following a gluten-free diet, then put Mexican cuisine on your go-to list of foods to eat! With corn, beans, rice, meat, and fresh vegetables as some of the staples of Mexican food, there is a long list of gluten-free options available for folks who suffer from wheat intolerances. But beware! Not all Mexican food is gluten-free!
Table of contents
- Is Mexican food gluten-free?
- Typically gluten-free Mexican foods
- Non-gluten-free Mexican foods
- Other things to watch out for
- The gluten-free traveler’s guide to words in Spanish
- Gluten-free Mexican food for dinner tonight!
This guide will list some of the more common gluten-free Mexican food options as well as foods that contain wheat and should be avoided. And if you are wondering what gluten-free Mexican foods you should have for dinner, well, look no further! I have a list of gluten-free recipes that you can make tonight!
As always, with any food that you are not preparing in your own home, it is ALWAYS BEST TO ASK how the food is made or what ingredients were used to ensure you avoid getting sick
Is Mexican food gluten-free?
Well, the answer, unfortunately, isn’t a straightforward “yes” or “no.”
Before the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico, the most prominent grain used in Mexican cooking was corn. Native Mexican people naturally followed a gluten-free diet! With the Spanish, came wheat. And since then, Mexican food has evolved to include some gluten components.
The good news is that corn is still prevalently used in Mexico and Mexican cooking. So many corn-based dishes like tamales, tacos, tostadas, and quesadillas are typically gluten-free. Let’s take a look at some common Mexican foods and what to look out for or ask if you are following a gluten-free diet.
Typically gluten-free Mexican foods
If you are looking to eat out or are traveling to Mexico, then this list should give you a starting point on what to look for on a restaurant menu.
Keep in mind that Mexican food in Mexico is prepared differently than Mexican food elsewhere. I notice quite a bit more wheat flour options in Mexican restaurants in the US when compared to what is cooked locally here in central Mexico where I live.
Notice that I say these items are “typically” gluten-free, so use this as a starting point and always ask!
Corn tortillas and chips
Corn tortillas, the base of many Mexican food dishes are wonderful gluten-free options. The same goes for the corn tortilla chips that often accompany the delicious bowl of salsa that comes as an appetizer at many Mexican restaurants in the US.
I have heard that some seemingly innocent “corn” tortillas are sometimes mixed with wheat flour to make the tortillas easier to handle and more pliable. Definitely ask if the corn tortilla chips or tortillas are 100% corn!
A second cautionary word of advice is that restaurants will often use the same fryer for corn tortilla chips and items containing wheat. So you may want to ask about any potential cross-contamination in the fryer if you are extra sensitive.
As always, it is best to ask, just to be sure.
The iconic Mexican food! Basically, a taco is a tortilla filled with grilled or stewed meat or vegetables. It is the ultimate Mexican street food, that can be enjoyed any time of the day.
If you are traveling in Mexico, you would be hard-pressed to find the hard crunchy tacos shells that you may be familiar with at fast-food Mexican restaurants. Tacos in Mexico generally use a soft tortilla, unless you are ordering tacos dorados (or taquitos) which are rolled tortillas that have been deep-fried. Whether a taco is gluten-free or not will depend on two factors: the type of tortilla used and the seasoning for the taco meat.
If the tortilla is 100% corn, then eat your heart out! But, if the tortilla is made of wheat flour (more common in northern Mexico and the US), then ask for corn tortillas instead or order something else.
Taco meat and fillings are sometimes marinaded with products that include wheat, like Salsa Maggi or Worcestershire sauce. So make sure to ask about all of the ingredients used in the tacos, before you order!
Tostadas are hardened corn tortillas topped with a variety of toppings, usually beans, meat, lettuce, salsa, and in the US sometimes cheese and sour cream. I, personally, have never seen flour tortillas used as a tostada base. As long as the tortilla used to make the tostada is 100% corn and the meat is not seasoned with anything that includes gluten, these should be fine!
Tamales are made with corn husks or banana leaves which are wrapped around a corn dough and meat or vegetable filling. They are then steamed until the dough is cooked through. Tamales are made typically with 100% corn flour, or in rare cases rice flour (for tamales canarios, typical of Michoacán), so the dough is gluten-free!
Again, the thing to check is if the filling ingredients, like meat or vegetables, are made with any seasonings that contain gluten. For example, many moles are thickened with bread or crackers, so you will likely want to avoid tamales with these fillings.
In central Mexico, quesadillas are traditionally made with corn masa. However, in the northern parts of Mexico, quesadillas can be made with flour tortillas. Cheeses used to make quesadillas like cheddar cheese (more common in the United States), queso fresco, Oaxaca cheese (queso Oaxaca), Chihuahua cheese (queso Chihuahua), or manchego cheeses are gluten-free.
Naturally gluten-free, and since beans are used extensively in Mexican cooking, this option should be readily available while traveling or eating out! Refried beans, black beans, and pinto beans, are all great gluten-free options.
Rice is a naturally gluten-free grain, but Mexican rice is often prepared with broth. Some cooks use homemade broth, which is generally gluten-free since they are made with just meat, water, and/or vegetables. However, some powdered broths do contain gluten. Ask before you eat, just to be sure you won’t get sick!
Table salsas that come with corn chips or are used to top tacos are gluten-free! Salsas are mostly made with a combination of fresh vegetables, like chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, and cilantro, all naturally gluten-free. Some salsas are made with dried chiles or fruit, which are again, gluten-free. So as long as there aren’t any hidden gluten flavorings in your table salsas, these should be fine for those with gluten intolerances.
Salsa is the Mexican word for sauce. So, in Mexico this word is used to refer to any type of sauce from table salsas to enchilada sauces, or even brothy sauces used for stewing meat or vegetables. While table salsas are usually made with fresh, naturally gluten-free ingredients, stewed or cooked sauces can include broths. As long as the broth is gluten-free, then these sauces can also be eaten by those with gluten intolerances. Below are some gluten-free salsa recipes for you to make at home!
Guacamole is made with ripe avocados that are mashed with fresh ingredients like tomatoes, onions, chile peppers, lime juice, cilantro, and salt. Ingredients in guacamole vary, but I have never run across a guacamole that includes gluten! I have a super easy and fast homemade guacamole recipe if you want to try your hand at making this traditional dish.
Meat, whether chicken, pork, beef, or seafood, is naturally gluten-free and often included in Mexican food! Delicious dishes like chicken fajitas, ground beef picadillo, pork ribs, carne seca, carne asada (grilled meat), cochinita pibil, or shredded meat varieties are found throughout Mexican food as either filling for enchiladas or tacos, toppers for tostadas, or stewed in saucy broths. These are generally options for those following a gluten-free diet.
One word of caution…some meat marinades use Salsa Maggi or Worcestershire sauce, which is not gluten-free.
Rolled corn tortillas filled with a variety of meats or vegetables and then topped with spicy salsa or enchilada sauce are generally options for folks with gluten intolerances. My word of caution here is to ensure that there is no sneaky gluten-containing ingredient in the sauce, like a flour thickener or powdered broth.
Flan is a common custardy dessert found throughout Mexico and is made with eggs, condensed milk, evaporated milk, sugar, and vanilla. Happily, these ingredients are gluten-free, so indulge your sweet tooth!
With the exception of Mexican beer, many typical Mexican drinks are gluten-free! Delicious aguas frescas are made with fresh fruit and sweetened with sugar. These are like “ades” in English, as in limeade, lemonade, etc. except that in Mexico they make these drinks out of everything from hibiscus flowers, prickly pear fruit, cucumber, mangoes, pineapple, or any in-season fruit. Tequila and mezcal are considered gluten-free since they are made with agave.
Non-gluten-free Mexican foods
Here’s a general list of Mexican foods that should be avoided if you are on a gluten-free diet.
Well, the name says it all. Flour tortillas are made, well, with flour. So definitely avoid these if you are following a gluten-free diet. This includes any food items wrapped in flour tortillas, like some quesadillas, some flautas, burritos, and chimichangas. Fortunately, lots of chain restaurants in the United States allow you to opt for burrito bowls or taco salads which give you the option to order the same delicious filling ingredients, but without the tortilla!
I love a good chile relleno! Usually, these are made with a poblano pepper, stuffed with cheese (or meat), then battered and fried. Sadly, most recipes use flour to coat the chiles before they are covered in egg batter, so these are a no-go.
Burritos and chimichangas
You won’t likely see these foods on the menu at restaurants in Mexico (unless you are in the northern part of Mexico, close to the US border), but they are a staple on menus inside the US. Burritos and chimichangas are made with large flour tortillas, so these are foods to avoid.
Sadly, churros are made with wheat flour. These fried dough sticks are delicious served warm and coated with cinnamon and sugar, but definitely off-limits for people with wheat intolerances.
Pan de muerto, bolillos, teleras, and other Mexican breads are made with wheat flour. Mexicans love sweet breads and cookies like “orejas” with their coffee, breakfast, or for a snack. Sadly, these are to be avoided if you are on a gluten-free diet.
Other things to watch out for
Many meats in Mexico are seasoned with herbs and spices. But sometimes, prepared sauces like Salsa Maggi or Worcestershire sauce (called salsa inglesa) are used to marinate meats. These sauces have gluten components and should be avoided.
Bread or flour used as thickeners
Some sauces or soup bases use flour or bread as thickeners. So, thick cream-based soups should be avoided as well as most moles.
Meat broths are used in Mexican food as the base for soups, stews, sauces, and for making rice. Many broths are gluten-free, but some powder-based broths or bouillon cubes contain wheat. Old-school Mexican home cooks often use Knorr brand bouillon for upping the flavor in sauces and stewed meat dishes.
When I checked the powdered Knorr bouillon in my pantry, I didn’t see any wheat-based ingredients, but there is no prominent label on the package indicating it is gluten-free. If you have a gluten intolerance, I would avoid Knorr brand products and opt for ones that are labeled gluten-free instead. My article “Is Knorr bouillon gluten-free?” will provide more detailed information on my research.
As with anything that you aren’t preparing in your own home and where you don’t have complete control over the cooking conditions, there is a risk of cross-contamination. Mexican dishes prepared in restaurants often use the same equipment or cooking surfaces for gluten and non-gluten foods. So, while you may order a gluten-free dish, the foods on your plate may have inadvertently come in contact with flour.
One area to look out for is a shared fryer. Corn tortilla chips may be gluten-free, but if the same fryer is used for chile rellenos or flautas made with flour tortillas, sadly, your gluten-free meal may just have become contaminated.
Sneaky mixed tortillas
In central Mexico where I live, corn tortillas are generally made with 100% corn dough. Sometimes, though, the corn dough is mixed with wheat flour to make the dough easier to work with and the tortillas more pliable.
This delicious Mexican sauce is made with ground chiles, spices, nuts, seeds, chocolate, and other ingredients, depending on the variety. Some cooks use bread or crackers to thicken the sauce. Others use tortillas. Others use neither. So, some moles may be gluten-free, while others may not. Unless you absolutely know what is in it, I would steer clear. For example, a popular store-bought mole brand, Doña Maria, is not gluten-free.
One exception is mole verde (green mole), which is usually made with tomatillos, chile peppers, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), herbs, and spices! I have not come across a mole verde with gluten in it, but again, you will have to check the ingredients!
Battered and fried foods
If you are eyeing the fried fish tacos or crispy potatoes cakes at the local taco stand, steer clear. Those items are likely coated in flour prior to being battered and fried.
The gluten-free traveler’s guide to words in Spanish
Traveling or eating out with celiac disease can be a challenge. Here’s a quick list of words or phrases that you should know or look out for if you are traveling in Mexico and are on a gluten-free diet.
This list is definitely not extensive, so your best bet is to carry a translated allergy card or be prepared to fully explain your dietary restrictions in Spanish. I have seen highly-rated translated allergy cards available for purchase on Legal Nomads (no affiliation) or Equal Eats (no affiliation) if you are not comfortable explaining your allergy in Spanish.
- Harina de trigo = wheat flour
- Harina = flour
- Empanizado = breaded (usually used to describe meat or fish that has been breaded and fried)
- Alergia = allergy
- Pan = bread
- Galleta = cookie or cracker
- Capeado = battered
- Celiaco(a) = celiac
- Celiac disease = enfermedad celíaca
- Gluten = Gluten
- Yo tengo alergia al gluten = I have a gluten allergy.
- Cebada = barley
- Centeno = rye
- Cerveza = beer
- Avena = oats
- Spelt flour = harina de espelta
- Millet = mijo
Gluten-free Mexican food for dinner tonight!
Some of my favorite Mexican food uses gluten-free ingredients, which means that you can whip up delicious Mexican food at home! I have linked to various recipes throughout this post, but here are a few extras that you should try!
I hope that this guide gives you a starting point for what to look for when ordering Mexican food at a local Mexican restaurant or when traveling through Mexico. As always, it is best to ask what ingredients a dish includes to ensure that you won’t eat something that makes you sick.
What is your favorite gluten-free Mexican food? Let me know in the comments below!