Unfortunately, when you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you do need to add charcoal to your list of things to worry about.
Many charcoal products contain a starch – which helps hold the charcoal pieces together and provides a controlled burn. Wheat starch is one of the common starches used for this purpose.
Now, wheat starch doesn’t contain much gluten, but it does contain a little bit. While most people with gluten problems are probably not bothered by cooking food on a charcoal fire that contains wheat starch, those of us who are particularly sensitive to trace amounts of gluten may experience low-grade symptoms as a result (especially if we Accidentally got some charcoal soot on our toasted marshmallows).
Some charcoal brands contain wheat
Most people think that charcoal is made from wood, but most charcoal products actually contain a variety of other ingredients.
It’s the charcoal blocks — those square, pillow-shaped, symmetrical pieces that probably represent the most commonly used form of fuel for grills — that create the risks associated with gluten.
Charcoal briquettes typically contain wood (in the form of charred wood and sawdust), minerals (coal and limestone), sodium nitrate (to help with ignition), and starch to bind them together.
Of course, you might think it doesn’t matter – after all, you don’t actually eat Charcoal, right?
Well, that’s right. But few grill masters can avoid getting a little charcoal dust on a burger when it splatters and pops underneath. Airborne gluten in the form of charcoal powder is also a potential problem. While the suspect ingredient is wheat starch, not wheat protein, the starch used is not purified and therefore inevitably contains some gluten protein.
So yes, while the risk of inadvertent gluten cross-contamination with charcoal is much lower than in a flour-filled kitchen or a crumb-covered cutting board, there are still some risks.
Fortunately, risks are also easy to avoid. Here are a few options for you to choose from:
- First, you can buy 100% virgin charcoal instead of briquettes – you might not find it at your local grocery store, but the big chain hardware stores have it, and I’ve seen it at Walmart. It’s often called “block charcoal,” and the pieces won’t be as uniform as briquettes; instead, they’ll look like charred wood (which they are). You can even use different kinds of lump charcoal, such as mesquite or pecan, to give your grilled food a different flavor.
- If you prefer briquettes (they are indeed easier to ignite than lump charcoal), you can stick with Kingsford briquettes. A representative from Kingsford confirmed to me that the company typically uses cornstarch rather than wheat starch to make briquettes. So unless you are very sensitive to corn and gluten, Kingsford briquettes should be fairly safe to use.
- Finally, you can invest in the gas grill that you (or your significant other) have been craving. With propane gas, there is no risk of gluten exposure.
Keep in mind that there are other potential risks of gluten that don’t involve charcoal when you’re grilling. If you cook food on the same grill surface as gluten-containing food, you run a huge risk of cross-contamination. Unsafe sauces or splatters in gluten crumbs will fascinate you every time, so be careful – only use fully clean (or purpose-built gluten-free) grill surfaces and mix your food with any gluten-containing items are separated.