Diet and Nutrition

Celiac Disease and Rice: Is It Gluten-Free?

Rice is mostly gluten-free, but are there some forms of rice that aren't? Find out now.

The only way to keep the symptoms of celiac disease in check is to avoid any and all exposure to gluten. For those suffering from this disease, even skin exposure with the protein can be enough to trigger a violent immune response that may cause symptoms. If consumed, gluten can trigger an internal immune response that may cause intestinal irritation, hindering the absorption of nutrients and minerals through the intestinal lining, leading to a wide variety of conditions in the long term. Despite the widespread availability of gluten-free foods and ingredients in many supermarkets, adapting to a gluten-free lifestyle can be particularly challenging, especially if the person has just received their diagnosis and is barely making modifications to their preexisting habits.

One of the most common sources of carbohydrates for lunch has always been rice, which we add to our meats and veggies. However, for celiac patients, it may come as a natural habit to avoid anything that doesn’t have the “gluten-free” label on it, since exposure to even the tiniest amounts of this protein can trigger nasty intestinal symptoms in the patient.

When it comes to rice, consuming this food (in its natural form) carries absolutely no risk of gluten exposure; rice has no gluten whatsoever. This goes for brown rice, white rice, and wild rice. Even the Asian variant of sticky rice (the one used for many Japanese dishes), also called glutinous rice, is gluten-free. The term “glutinous” is used to refer to its sticky nature and not to suggest the presence of gluten.

Gluten is used to refer to a group of proteins commonly found in wheat, barley, rye, and all products derived from it. At a glance, the gluten protein is very small and looks somewhat like a snowflake. Upon being ingested by a celiac patient (or a patient with gluten sensitivity), their immune systems create antibodies that target not only the gluten protein but also the organs where it is located (the intestines), as well as other random structures. The symptoms of celiac disease are not only limited to intestinal complications, as any structure that is targeted and attacked by the antibodies also suffers damage.

Rice has no gluten content in its composition. In fact, many gluten-free versions of other popular products are made with rice, rather than with their actual ingredients. There are instances where rice may not actually be gluten-free, such as in cross-contact scenarios. Furthermore, rice in some of its market presentations may come packed with spices and substances that add flavoring or color, which may contain gluten.

Some types of rice may have misleading names. For example, the name rice pilaf may suggest a gluten-free product, but this type of rice is actually made with orzo, which is not gluten-free. For this reason, it’s important to always read the label of the products to be sure that they are truly gluten-free. If in doubt, it’s best to avoid the product altogether or contact the manufacturer to obtain more information.

When it comes to cross-contact scenarios, the rice may get contaminated through exposure with other gluten-containing substances, such as wheat, barley, or rye, during the growing, harvesting, and manufacturing processes. For this reason, it’s important to always purchase the product that has the gluten-free label on the box, or the one that is certified gluten-free, as these usually have to go through rigorous testing of the product as well as the manufacturing process in order to earn said certification. As a general rule of thumb, while rice is inherently gluten-free, always avoid picking it up from the bargain or bulk bins, as many shoppers can use the same scoop for both gluten and gluten-free products, completely voiding the point of rice for celiac disease.

If eating out, it’s important to always check the menu when eating rice to verify that there are no ingredients that could make the rice no longer gluten-free. In many restaurants, the customer may feel free to ask for the rice to be made in its own dedicated pan to avoid exposure to other foods that might contaminate its gluten-free status.

Cross-contact exposure is a very real scenario when it comes to celiac patients and eating out. Most restaurants are aware of the implications of accidental gluten exposure for celiac patients and frequently strive to prepare their meals in a way that could appeal to all of their clients.

If the patient is experiencing symptoms after consuming rice, they must check the package to verify the manufacturing process of the food. If no information is available, they should check online, or make a call to their customer support center to get more information. A probable scenario is that the gluten-free rice had a gluten-containing ingredient added to improve its flavor or to preserve it for a longer time. Could cross-contact have occurred then? This question could help find an answer to an accidental exposure.

If the symptoms don’t go away after some time, it is encouraged to see a doctor for advice. In a clinical environment, the specialist can run a blood test to see if the gluten antibodies are unusually high, suggesting an immune response to the protein as the source of the symptoms.

Through this test, the patient can discover if they are accidentally consuming gluten, for when they are not sure if the protein somehow got into their system. These celiac blood tests are varied and include the Total IgA, IgA-tTG, IgA-EMA, and IgG/IgA-DGP. They can both be used to determine the presence of gluten antibodies in their blood and to study the extent of the immune response to the protein, in order to determine the best course of treatment for the patient.

It’s important to note that those who are already gluten-free before undergoing these tests may fail to receive an accurate diagnosis. If one has already adopted a gluten-free lifestyle, they could use a “gluten challenge” in order to gauge their body’s reaction to the protein and arrive at a possible diagnosis.