“Is the Panera Gluten-Free Menu Really Gluten-Free?” contains affiliate links.
You may be wondering if it’s safe to eat at Panera Bread if you have celiac disease, a gluten sensitivity, or cannot eat gluten for other health reasons. Panera Bread has the word “bread” in its name and, well, that is a big red flag to those of us who cannot eat products made with wheat, barley or rye.
In this post, I will share with you:
- A bit about how Panera prepares its food (so you can make a decision on whether or not you want to eat there).
- What on the Panera gluten-free menu is safe for you to eat – and what is NOT safe – this is important!!
- How to order at Panera to minimize cross contamination and cross contact with gluten.
- The results of my Nima Sensor test (I tested two dishes at Panera for gluten – let’s see how they fared).
We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started.
How Panera Prepares Products Made with Gluten
First, I want to share with you a bit about how Panera prepares its food. I know this information because my husband used to work for Panera, so I feel like I have a little insight into how the restaurant works.
Panera has central “fresh dough facilities” located in each of the metro areas where it has cafes. At the fresh dough facilities, bakers make the dough, from scratch, and prepare it to be delivered to the local cafes each morning (and when I say morning, I mean in the wee hours of the night).
Each restaurant employs a baker who bakes the delivered dough inside each Panera location every morning. If you’ve ever walked into a Panera, particularly in the AM, you can soak in the smells of fresh baked bread.
This is good and bad news for someone who cannot eat gluten.
It’s good news because there isn’t flour at each bakery cafe, meaning that flour is unlikely to get into everything else. Unlike a pizza joint where flour is being tossed into the air every few minutes, the flour exposure is minimal at Panera. (Still present, but less.)
It’s bad news because, well, with all the bread being baked up daily, there are breadcrumbs galore at each Panera. There are loaves of bread being sliced daily, along with bagels, pastries and everything in between. Employees are touching a lot of gluten too.
What on the Panera Gluten-Free Menu is Safe?
There are several items on the Panera gluten-free menu that are okay to eat as long as you take the proper precautions. You should ask the order-taker to view the gluten-free menu as items change, and many items at Panera are seasonal.
When I asked the order-taker at the front counter what items were gluten-free, she told me about just a few items. However, upon further inquiry, she said several items can be made gluten-free with a few modifications. So if there’s something you’re curious about, such as a soup or salad, ask if the dish can be make gluten-free with modifications, such as without croutons, for example.
Panera publishes information “avoiding gluten” information on its website. At the time of publishing this post, gluten-free items at Panera included:
- Greek Salad
- Seasonal Greens Salad
- Fuji Apple Chicken Salad
- Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa
- Southwest Chile Lime Ranch Salad with Chicken
- Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken
- Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken
- Southwest Chicken Tortilla Bowl
- Baked Potato Soup
- Vegetarian Autumn Squash Soup
- Turkey Chili
- Coconut Macaroon
- Caesar Salad (without croutons)
- Caesar Salad with Chicken (without croutons)
- Ancient Grain & Arugula Salad with Chicken (without ancient grain blend)
- BBQ Chicken Salad (without frizzled onions)
- Vegetarian Creamy Tomato Soup (without croutons)
The following items are listed in Panera’s article about what to eat if you’re avoiding gluten, however, THEY ARE NOT GLUTEN-FREE and should be avoided.
- Steel Cut Oatmeal with Almonds, Quinoa & Honey (these contain oats that are not certified GF)
- Steel Cut Oatmeal with Strawberries, Pecans & Cinnamon Crunch Topping (these contain oats that are not certified GF)
- Steel Cut Oatmeal with Apple Chips, Pecans & Cinnamon Crunch Topping(these contain oats that are not certified GF)
- Greek Yogurt with Mixed Berries (these contain oats that are not certified GF)
- Triple Chocolate Cookie with Walnuts (these contain oats that are not certified GF)
DO NOT eat anything with oats in it – Panera does not use certified gluten-free oats. You can read more about the perils of non-certified gluten-free oats in this article, Are Oats Gluten-Free?
What about Panera’s Gluten Conscious Cookies?
YOU MUST AVOID Panera’s “gluten conscious” cookies no matter how tempting they look. Period.
While these cookies contain gluten-free ingredients, they are baked in the same ovens alongside the gluten-containing cookies and no precautions are taken to avoid cross contamination. None! These gluten-free cookies are made in the fresh dough facilities alongside all the other gluten-containing items.
On top of it all, these “gluten conscious” cookies are displayed alongside all the other cookies and pastries in the pastry display cases. Ug. No good, Panera. This is confusing to someone who is gluten-free.
Panera – I think offering gluten-free cookies that people who are gluten-free cannot eat looks like you’re just out to make a buck off the GF trend and that you’re not really trying to help the gluten-free community (quite the opposite is true, actually).
How to Order Gluten-Free at Panera
When you order something gluten-free at Panera, make sure you tell the order-taker that you need your dish be gluten-free and that it cannot touch gluten (i.e. you cannot pick the croutons out of the soup or off the salad nor can a baguette be placed on your tray by mistake).
Also, ask the person taking your order to insist that the person preparing your food changes his or her gloves before handling your meal. You can ask the server to discuss these precautions with the person preparing your food directly.
When I ate at Panera last, the person who took my order walked down to the person preparing my dish, explained what I had to told her, and then he prepared my meal for me. This made me feel good knowing that extra step of caution was taken in making my meal safe. (You can also watch them make your meal if you’re worried.)
What Happened When I Used My Nima Sensor at Panera?
If you’ve been me for awhile, you know that I’m a huge fan, partner and affiliate for Nima Sensor. The Nima Sensor is a tool that you can use to test a small portion of your food for gluten exposure. You put a little food inside the gadget and in about three minutes, Nima will tell you if that food contains gluten (or not).
Nima sponsored me to do a Facebook Live from Panera yesterday, where I decided to test two items on the Panera gluten-free menu – the vegetarian creamy tomato soup (with no croutons) and the turkey chili (as is).
Below you can see the final results of my tests here (smiley face means no gluten was found, a wheat symbol means Nima found gluten):
Vegetarian Creamy Tomato Soup:
Bottom Line: If you want to get a gluten-free meal at Panera, it is possible with a few cautionary procedures.
Always take the time to communicate your needs to your server, carefully review the most current gluten-free menu (and realize that some of the items on the menu are not really gluten-free, such as everything with oats in it) and test your food with your Nima Sensor to be certain.
Panera, like every other restaurant, cannot guarantee that you will have a completely gluten-free meal, but I found if you order wisely, are a smart diner, and take all the necessary precautions, you’ll minimize your risk of any gluten exposure at Panera (or anywhere). We live in a gluten-full world, so you must learn to navigate it to the best of your ability.
Want a Nima Sensor?
If you’d like a Nima Sensor of your own, please visit Nima Sensor online. If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity (i.e., gluten makes you sick!), the Nima Sensor is a lifesaver and will be one of the best buys of your life!