Gluten Free: Struggles and Solutions

How to live with gluten allergies in Shanghai

by Recipe Nomad | Tue, September 12, 2017

No matter the circumstances, it’s not an easy decision to take an overseas assignment. Kids, schools, lifestyle and health issues all play a factor when deciding whether or not to move abroad. While the first three factors can be resolved, the issue of health can be the toughest to deal with, and one issue we’ve been hearing a lot about these days is gluten allergies and how to live with them in Shanghai.

Gluten Free Pasta

Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease are autoimmune disorders in which gluten damages the small intestine. Wheat, barley and rye all contain the gluten protein, which cannot be properly absorbed into the body. Therefore people with Gluten Sensitivity, or Celiac, must avoid any food containing this protein, including cross-contamination. This condition makes everyday tasks like:

  • preparing dinner
  • eating out
  • vacationing

quite difficult in one’s home country, let alone a foreign one where navigating a language barrier is a must.

If you’re thinking about moving to Shanghai, or already live here, know that you are not the only one in this big city with gluten issues. In fact, you might be surprised to find out that there is a vibrant gluten-free community in this city.

100% gluten free

Biting the moving bullet

Being flexible and managing expectations is vital when moving to Shanghai with gluten allergies. Erica Spater moved to Shanghai in August of 2016 and has a 10-year-old daughter with Celiac Disease. Spater’s main concern was communicating her daughter's dietary needs when going out to eat.

“We eventually decided we could make it work but kept in mind that we might have to make sacrifices with regard to our mobility, culinary exploration and time management . . . I knew it would be harder for me in Shanghai to find gluten-free food, especially eating out – but it didn’t impact our decision as I’ve become used to managing that wherever we are.”

Anna Grammare, Fitness and Wellness Coach, explains.

What we’re up against

The biggest challenge people with gluten allergies must deal with in Shanghai is going out to eat. While rice and vegetables are naturally gluten free, soy sauce contains gluten and is added to nearly every Chinese dish. Spater explains that her daughter, “just can’t safely enjoy local cuisine as it inevitably contains gluten.” While living in China can be a challenge, it’s not impossible. A bit of research, planning and packing extra snacks are a few ways a family with gluten allergies can still be adventurous without risking their health.

When it comes to buying gluten-free products, Fitness and Wellness Coach, Anna Grammare says,

“Some things are astronomically expensive. I try and make a lot of snacks at home to avoid buying anything processed or outrageously overpriced!”

While there may be a growing number of options, products tend to run on the more expensive side, an issue that leaves some expats with the sensitivity well-fed but unhappy. For many, choosing to prepare their own food is the best and safest option, but knowing that you have a choice goes a long way when navigating dietary restrictions.

The great news is that there is a continuously growing number of resources available to ensure that those suffering from gluten allergies can have a positive and successful experience in Shanghai, and as a result. In 2013, the organization Gluten-Free China (GFCN) was established to help people living with them in Shanghai. GFCN highlights how they have brought the gluten-free community together,

“to support people with gluten-induced disorders and GF diets from early diagnosis to the dining table. Thanks to our professional volunteer team, we share all of this on social media, as well as [holding] educational and networking events.”

Gluten Seeds

While several years ago this condition may have prevented people from moving to Shanghai, today more grocery stores offer gluten-free products. Holistic Health Coach and four year Shanghai resident Kuen Holmstrom’s husband has Celiac Disease and an extreme gluten sensitivity. She furthered,

“When we arrived to Shanghai the first thing I did was to try and find gluten-free products, but needless to say, [the options were] very slim and very limited. Now fast forward four years, there are more gluten-free options in Shanghai and even baked goods.”

Today, online stores like Epermarket, Fields and Kate & Kimi have a growing selection of products that work for her and her husband's lifestyle, a marker of how far the city’s come and of life becoming easier in China for those with gluten allergies.

Gluten Free Cupcakes

According to Tom Bailey, who has Celiac Disease and has been in Shanghai for five years,

“I do see a large range of alternatives popping up everywhere from local food start-ups to bigger chains like Carrefour and City Shop. There are definitely options and with the growing number of foreign friendly online food delivery services and shops, Celiacs or those with gluten intolerance should have no problem surviving the streets of Shanghai.”

From bread, to cake mixes and even muesli for individuals with gluten allergies, everyone can enjoy safe food in Shanghai. The founder of GFCN, Sanna Luoto, moved here in 2011, and found that there were very few stores that offered gluten-free products, let alone any restaurants who offered gluten-free dishes. Today there are several establishments offering limited accommodating menus, such as Goodfellas and Wagas. Keep in mind, that when dining out, cross-contamination is a big issue for those with super sensitivity, which may not be accounted for and is worth asking about.

While you’ll now find many options in Shanghai, the main advice from many people in the GF community is if you have a favorite ingredient or gluten-free food from your native country, make sure to bring it with you! That being said, one day your favorite local grocer just might begin to carry that little piece of home that you love. According to Donna Bose who’s son has Celiac, “We used to import gluten-free soy sauce. Now, everyone has it,” and in 2014, Sandi’s Gluten-Free Shop began offering, high-quality gluten-free baked goods and baking materials like sprinkles, cake mixes and flour. While it always helps to be prepared, if anything’s clear, it’s that Shanghai and the culinary scene are headed in the right direction.

Gluten Free Powder

Where there’s a will

If you’re gluten-free, make sure to take advantage of the city’s growing community. There are several WeChat groups devoted to GF life in Shanghai, as well as online resources like glutenfreechina.org, which contain first-hand advice from others, an extensive list of safe shopping, restaurants options and GF events. Talk about your allergies with neighbors, colleagues and other parents from the school and you’ll be surprised at how much help for gluten-free living you’ll find.

Where to shop 

  • Bastiaan Bakery has a broad range of GF baked goods, from breads to muffins; www.bastiaanbakery.com.cn
  • Epermarket has a full line of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free baking products and premade bakery goods; www.epermarket.com

  • Kate and Kimi have over 100 imported and locally made gluten free items; www.kateandkimi.com

  • Sandi’s Gluten-Free Shop; www.gfchopstix.com

  • Sproutlife; WeChatID: Sproutlifestyle

Where to eat

Some of these restaurants offer gluten-free menus, while others can safely accommodate with gluten-free dishes:

• Calypso

• Goodfellas

• Lost Heaven

• Mercato

• Pure and Whole

• The 1515 West, Chophouse and Bar

• Wagas

• Strictly Cookies

• DOC

For tips on gluten-free travel and some useful, time-saving downloads, scan the QR code below: