The land of smiles has always been associated with rice and when you think of Thailand, you don’t immediately think about gluten. It is therefore often a pre-assumption of people on a gluten-free diet that traveling through Thailand is safe and hassle-free. The modern Thai cuisine however has many hidden sources of gluten that many visitors to Thailand are unaware of.
International influences have introduced gluten containing ingredients to the Thai cuisine such as soy sauce and noodles made of wheat. Thai restaurants, from the luxury restaurants to the local street vendors, often use some gluten containing sauce that they mix in their food. Even traditional Thai food now often has gluten containing ingredients. For those arriving in Thailand for the first time, staying gluten-free during an entire holiday can be challenging.
Thai companies are quickly catching up to the gluten free trend that is already a big business in Europe and the United States. It was a rare sight to see anything labeled as “gluten-free” in the past, but now the gluten-free import products are popping up in every main grocery store in large cities such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket.
While major importers are already catering to the gluten free demand in supermarkets, the rest of the Thai population is still largely unaware of the gluten free phenomenon. For most Thai people, the terms “gluten” and “Celiac” are still strange subjects which makes it difficult to explain a gluten-free diet to a Thai chef, especially if you don’t speak Thai. If you plan to eat at a restaurant in Thailand, it would be good to print out a gluten free restaurant card which is a great help in many occasions. The glutenfree card on thailandglutenfree.com is a free and complete restaurant card translated in Thai.
In Bangkok there are only a few restaurants and bakeries that serve gluten free options as part of their menu and even fewer outside of Bangkok, but that will change in the near future. Currently the increase is mainly because gluten free is seen as trendy and less as a medical need. It does provide more options for those on a gluten free diet, but it does come with certain risks. There is still a lot of misinformation that needs to be corrected.
Because gluten free is seen as just a trend or just an allergy, safety measures are sometimes taken lightly. While it might be okay for someone with minor gluten intolerance to eat a gluten free cake that has been in contact with cake made from Spelt, it can already cause a lot of damage to someone with Celiac disease. Using the same cooking material for gluten-free and not-gluten-free meals is another common problem at many restaurants. The amount of cross-contamination is high.
As a tourist you might not notice it, but the number of Thai people getting diagnosed with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance is also going up. By sharing information we want to help raise awareness of gluten free and Celiac disease, not only to make it easier for tourists to visit Thailand, but also to help Thai people better understand gluten-free.