Does Charcoal Contain Gluten?

Unfortunately, you do need to add charcoal to your list of things to worry about when you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Many charcoal products contain a form of starch—it’s there to help hold the charcoal pieces together and to provide for a controlled burn. And 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 tiny bit. And while most people with gluten issues probably won’t be bothered by cooking their foods on a wheat starch-containing charcoal fire, those of us who are particularly sensitive to trace gluten may get low-grade symptoms from this (especially if we accidentally get some charcoal soot on our roasted marshmallows).

charcoal fire with marshmallow
Daniel Gasienica / Getty Images

Some Charcoal Brands Contain Wheat

Most people think of charcoal as being made up of wood and nothing else, but most charcoal products actually contain a variety of other ingredients.

It’s the charcoal briquettes—those square, pillow-shaped, symmetrical pieces of charcoal that probably represent the most commonly used form of fuel for your grill—that pose the gluten-related risk.

Charcoal briquettes typically contain wood (in the form of both charred wood and sawdust), minerals (coal and limestone), sodium nitrate (to aid ignition) and starch to hold it all together.

Of course, you’re probably thinking this shouldn’t matter—after all, you don’t actually eat the charcoal, right?

Well, true. But it’s the rare grill master who can avoid getting a little charcoal dust on the burgers as the fire sputters and pops beneath them. And inhaling airborne gluten in the form of charcoal dust also represents a potential problem. Although the suspect ingredient is wheat starch, not wheat protein, the starch used isn't purified, and so inevitably contains some gluten protein.

So yes, while the risk of inadvertent gluten cross-contamination is far less with charcoal than it would be in a flour-filled kitchen or crumb-covered cutting board, there is still some risk.

Fortunately, the risk also is pretty easy to avoid. Here are a couple of options for you:

  • First, you can purchase 100% pure wood charcoal instead of briquettes—you might not find it in your local grocery store, but big chain hardware stores carry it, and I’ve seen it at Wal-Mart. It’s commonly called “lump charcoal,” and the pieces will not be uniform like briquettes; instead, they will look just like burnt pieces of wood (which they are). You even can use different varieties of lump charcoal, such as mesquite or hickory, to impart different flavors to your grilled foods.
  • If you prefer briquettes (they do tend to light more easily than lump charcoal), you can stick with Kingsford briquettes. A Kingsford company representative confirmed to me that the company customarily uses cornstarch, not wheat starch, to make its briquettes. Therefore, unless you’re extremely sensitive to corn as well as to gluten, you should be reasonably safe using Kingsford briquettes.
  • Finally, you can invest in that gas grill you (or your significant other) have been craving. With propane gas, there’s no risk of gluten exposure.

Just remember that there are other potential risks for a glutening when you’re grilling that don’t involve the charcoal. If you cook your foods on the same grill surface as gluten-containing foods, you’re running a huge risk of cross-contamination. Splatters from unsafe sauces or crumbs from gluten-y buns will get you every time, so beware—use only a completely clean (or dedicated gluten-free) grill surface, and keep your food separate from any gluten-containing items.

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.