Does Tempura Have Gluten?

The challenges of a gluten-free diet are plentiful. When eating foods prepared by others, it can be hard to know whether gluten is likely to be present or not. This is a question that has plagued tempura lovers for a long time.

So, does tempura have gluten? Yes, tempura has gluten in it if it is prepared according to the traditional Japanese recipe. The batter used to coat the items contains flour, often both wheat flour and rice flour.

Let’s take a closer look at the availability of gluten-free options for those wanting to enjoy Japanese cuisine.

Does Tempura Have Gluten?

Gluten, by definition, is wheat, rye or barley protein. Gluten enables foods containing these products to maintain their form — in effect, gluten acts like a “glue.” Tempura cooking involves flour in the battering process and the flour contains gluten. Home cooks sometimes use panko breadcrumbs for a crispier coating, particularly for prawns, and this option also contains gluten.

It is worth mentioning, as well, that tempura is fried in a common oil vat in successive batches. Shards of cooked batter float in the oil, although they are typically removed quickly to prevent burning (and they are often added to other dishes as a specialty topping). However, the fact that tempura has been boiled in the oil means that gluten will be present, even if the cooked tempura pieces and batter shards have already been removed.

There are alternatives to gluten flours for those determined to find a way to enjoy tempura while maintaining a gluten-free diet. The following flours do not contain gluten and can be used for a deep-frying batter:

  • Cornstarch
  • Potato flour
  • Brown rice flour
  • Tapioca starch
  • Cassava flour

What about the seafood (prawns, shrimp) and vegetables (sweet potatoes, beans, carrots, mushrooms, etc.) that form the core of a tempura entrée? Fortunately, none of these items have gluten. And plain rice doesn’t contain gluten and is often served with tempura dishes like “tendon.” The sweet sauce that accompanies tempura is likely gluten-free as well if it was thickened with cornstarch.

An interesting often overlooked fact is that soy sauce often has gluten-products added during processing and should be avoided unless it is specifically described as being without wheat content. Also, sushi rice often has malt vinegar in it, which also contains gluten.

Why is Gluten a Concern?

Many people have gluten sensitivities, some on the mild end of the spectrum and some with life-altering consequences. Let’s look at the common diagnoses that result in instructions to adhere to a gluten-free diet:

Celiac DiseaseChronic diarrhea, abdominal distention, appetite loss, failure to thrive
Non-celiac Gluten SensitivityGastrointestinal problems, neurological disorders, fibromyalgia, dermatitis
Gluten Ataxia Auto-immune disease, neuron expiration, intestinal damage
Dermatitis HerpetiformisSkin inflammation, chronic blistering, auto-immune conditions
Wheat AllergyMouth/throat problems, skin irritation, nasal congestion

Avoiding glutens is an incredibly restrictive diet in our culture. Many foods contain “hidden” sources of gluten that are not immediately obvious. Careful meal planning, including purchasing and cooking techniques, as well as extreme caution when eating out, are required.

Is Tempura Vegetarian and Vegan Friendly?

Often, there is confusion between gluten avoidance and vegetarian/vegan lifestyles. Although there is a cross-over between the permitted dietary choices for both groups, gluten-free diets are frequently a medical prescription rather than simply a choice for a healthy diet.

Given that we know tempura is not easily enjoyed by those on a gluten-free diet, are those avoiding meat and animal products able to partake?

There are some obvious no-no’s for strict vegetarians and vegans. Shrimp and prawns are shellfish animals and their meat is considered non-vegetarian. Tempura batter ingredients may contain animal products as well. Strict vegetarians will also be concerned about the oil in the vat used for batch frying, as meat product cross-contamination will occur.

Avoiding Gluten in Japanese Cooking

A gluten-free diet requires careful attention and, if one isn’t familiar with the particular preparation and cooking techniques from another region of the globe, the challenges can be immense.

It is wise to study the available lists of foods containing gluten, including foods with “hidden” sources of gluten, as well as preparing some straightforward questions which can be asked of restaurant chefs when you are eating out. Fortunately, sushi and sashimi (using real seafood, not imitation products) are often available in a gluten-free variety that avoids problematic rice vinegar. However, great care is still required.

Knowing the ingredients in one’s foods is important for all of us, but particularly for those requiring a gluten-free diet. It seems clear that tempura should be firmly placed in the “no go” category for people with dietary restrictions which force them to avoid all gluten.