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Gluten Free On the Go: Taco Bell

Updated on July 30, 2016
This is an old photo of a Cantina Bowl.  The Power Bowl is similar, but less fancy.
This is an old photo of a Cantina Bowl. The Power Bowl is similar, but less fancy.

When your food options are limited, what can you eat at Taco Bell?

Updated July 31, 2016

When you're on a gluten free diet, eating out can be difficult. Sometimes it's impossible. Oh sure, more and more restaurants are identifying allergens or providing lists of ingredients for their customers with special dietary needs, but even when you have such a list and even when you ask a million questions you're still left wondering about how your food will be handled.

For this reason I almost prefer fast food to any "slow" dining experience. I like to be able to see the server preparing everything. I like to be able to ask them to change gloves or use a special utensil if need be, or catch them if they try to put my sandwich on a bun and then just--oopsie!--take it off. Fast food provides a certain peace of mind that I can't get from other restaurants, and while there may be a risk of cross-contamination, I feel a lot more secure watching my sub-par food be prepared than I would trusting someone to remember to leave the bread off my plate at a more expensive sit-down restaurant.

That said, eating gluten free at fast food restaurants is a challenge. A few chains have their stuff together and have enough items where one could eat a relatively decent meal, while others provide a list of soft drinks and salad dressings and consider their job finished (I'M LOOKING AT YOU, KFC).

Taco Bell is somewhere in the middle. There are certainly a few items you can eat if you're eating gluten free, but the list is very limited. Very, very limited.

Very, very, very limited.

You might think that Mexican food would be pretty safe. Even fast food-style Mexican food. After all, apart from a few fried items and the flour tortillas, what really contains gluten? Well, when it comes to Taco Bell the gluten is hidden in a few unexpected places:

The ground beef

The taco shells

The seasoned potatoes

While you might have thought a regular ol' taco would be a safe bet because it's safe at any more reputable Mexican restaurant, when it comes to Taco Bell it is verboten. Yep. You can't even eat the tacos. So what do you eat? What can you eat? More importantly, what can you eat without making a lot of alterations? Generally speaking your options are:

Beans

Rice

Power Bowls (formerly the Cantina Bowl, sort of)

Various Chips and Dips

It used to be that the chips came with a disclaimer that they were probably fried in the same vat as something containing gluten, and I can neither confirm nor deny that this is still the case. Before ordering any chips you may want to ask at your local Taco Bell whether or not they fry their chips in the same oil as anything else.

That said, you can choose from all sorts of dips, including nacho cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole, and salsa. There's even a thing called "Triple Layer Nachos" that comes with nacho cheese, beans and red sauce. It's worth noting that the red sauce was questionable for a while due to a yeast ingredient that no longer appears to be questionable. And if you don't like red sauce (I don't) you could always upgrade your nachos with various add-ons at an additional cost.

The Power Bowl is a less delicious (OPINION ALERT) version of the Cantina Bowl that includes rice, your choice of beef, chicken or veggies, black beans, pico, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, avocado ranch sauce and cheddar cheese. Texturally it's pretty mushy with all those wet components, but it's big and it's filling nonetheless.

It's worth noting that at Taco Bell, like many other establishments, you can have your fill of sugary beverages, which will always and forever appear on every gluten free list ever.

They also list their hash browns and coffee as gluten free, which I suppose is something to keep in mind if you're hungry in the A.M. and all that's available is the T.B. (Taco Bell, not tuberculosis.)

Of course I'm not saying you should eat at Taco Bell every day. Or at all, if you're seriously against the idea. But sometimes you need food. And you need it fast. Packing your lunch all the time gets tiring. Eating $8 organic frozen dinners is annoying. Sometimes you're limited by where you are and what restaurants happen to be nearby. Sometimes Taco Bell is the only fast food option nearby that isn't a salad, and I do appreciate having the option of even just a tub of beans and rice.

However.

If Taco Bell truly wants to be competitive and continue moving in the right direction, having more items like the Power Bowl would be a great step. Even offering a "bowl" option for existing burritos, where someone can throw the innards on a bed of rice (after taking the gluten out of the beef, please) would give the gluten intolerant so many more options. As it is, knowing for certain that there are a few items I can eat is nice (it's a few more than some places have), but they could certainly do better. If none of the items on the list above seem interesting, it might be worth giving Taco Bell HQ a call and letting them know what you think.

Their number, for the record, is 1-800-822-6235


I have included the link to Taco Bell's allergens page just in case you're one of the folks who has multiple sensitivities. I believe the Cantina Bowl is dairy free if you take the dressing out, but don't quote me on that (and it's still delicious that way).

(Disclaimer: I am not responsible if you do eat some Taco Bell and get glutened. It hasn't happened to me yet, but I won't say that it never does.)

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