An Important Nutrition Question: Are Tamales Gluten-Free Or Not?

Tamales are my today’s topic. Actually, my main topic is discovering if tamales are gluten-free or not, and I’ll soon explain why.

I’m sure many of you love tamales. I personally love preparing (and reheating) them. Although it takes a lot of time, I admit. But, I like experimenting, you know that already.

I also have a friend that’s just crazy about tamales. She absolutely adores eating them. The thing is, she has recently discovered she’s gluten sensitive, so she was forced to begin a gluten-free diet, and now she pays a lot of attention to the food.

She knows that I try as much as I can to avoid gluten in my family’s food. None of us has problems with gluten, but I know what are the benefits of not consuming it often.

That’s why she came up to me, knowing how much I love researching and learning about food, asking me to help her discover how safe it was for her to eat tamales, because of her situation.

To put it simply, she wanted to know if tamales are gluten-free or not. Of course, I was glad to help her, and I started my research immediately.

Now, after I had finished it, I must say that I’m very pleased for having the chance to do this and help not only her but also many of you that have the same problem. And I’m also glad that my knowledge on the subject has expanded a lot.

So, I will list in brief some of the information which I think are useful and answer the question: are tamales gluten-freeor not?

What Are Tamales?

Tamales, is a dish that originates from today’s Central America. Some sources say it dates from the times of the Olmec, Toltec, Maya and Aztec civilizations, which is 8000 – 5000 BC.

They are still widespread across Central and South America, but also in North America and Europe. It is food that makes a great breakfast or a dinner and offers great possibilities for experimenting with different fillings, besides the most common ones like cheese, meat, fruit or vegetables.

The preparation of tamales takes some time. They are made of masa (dough, usually corn starch), which is steamed in a corn husk, banana or plantain leaves wrappers. Luckily, in these days both corn masa and corn husk can be bought in almost every grocery store.

Tamales Variations

There are many variations of tamales which differ in size, shape and fillings.

Tamales can have various fillings, such as:

  • Meat – common meat fillings are chicken or pork with different sauces.
  • Cheese – very common variation are tamales with cheese.
  • Fruit – Tamales can also be sweet if you add sugar to the corn mix and fill it with dried fruits and nuts.
  • Chili Peppers – Spicy tamales are also very common.
  • Other fillings, depending on individual taste.
  • They can also be served without the filling with cooked and mashed beans or some other side dish.

Related: What To Serve With Tamales?

Let’s talk about gluten now.

What Is Gluten And Where Can Gluten Be Found?

Gluten is a word used to name the proteins helping the food to maintain its shape, found in different types of wheat and its varieties, but also in rye, barley, and triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye.

Gluten is found in various food types.

Foods Where Wheat, Barley, Rye, And Triticale Are Commonly Found

Wheat is common in:

  • Bread
  • Baked goods
  • Soups
  • Pasta
  • Cereals
  • Sauces
  • Salad dressings
  • Roux

Rye is common in:

Barley is common in:

  • Malt
  • Food coloring
  • Soups
  • Beer
  • Brewer’s Yeast

Triticale is common in:

  • Breads
  • Pasta
  • Cereals

You should be careful; gluten is also found in other foods, where you wouldn’t expect it, such as energy bars, candy, candy bars, soy sauce, cheesecake filling and many other.

Gluten Sensitivity

Health or digestive problems caused by eating foods that contain gluten are very common, especially in recent times. The number of people that have some sort of gluten-related issues is increasing by the day.

Three medical conditions can cause those problems, and those are:

  • Celiac disease
  • Wheat allergy
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity

If you have some sort of intolerance to gluten, you should always read the label and the ingredient list.It is also important to remember that products labeled wheat-free are not necessarily gluten-free, because they may contain other foods that contain gluten.

What Does Gluten-Free Mean?

Gluten-free means foods that don’t contain gluten or any traces of it.

Gluten-Free Diet And Its Benefits

Agluten-free diet is a way of nutrition that strictly forbids gluten.

Although gluten proteins don’t have a very high nutritional value, and the grains that contain gluten aren’t essential to our diet, it’s necessary to select your food and the gluten-free replacements properly so that you wouldn’t suffer from nutritional deficiencies.

The best advice for all of you who need to be on this diet is to get some dietary education.

Some of the noted benefits of this diet are:

  • Decreases cholesterol levels.
  • Promotes normal functioning of the digestive system.
  • Increases energy and efficiency levels.
  • Avoiding unhealthy food.
  • Eating healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables.
  • It is good for your heart.
  • Lowers risk of diabetes.
  • Fortifies the immune system because of eating foods rich in antioxidants and vitamins.

What Is Masa Harina And Does It Contain Gluten?

Masa harina is a nicely ground corn flour. It is made from dried corn, which is cooked in water with slaked lime, hulled, ground up and dried again.

It contains only ground corn, and it is gluten-free. When it’s mixed with water or oil, it forms a dough called “masa” used for making tamales and tortillas.

If you want your masa harina to be gluten-free, you have to be sure you are buying real masa harina and not one blended with other flours that do contain gluten, so always check the package before buying.

Are Tamales Gluten-Free?

Tamales are gluten-free if they are made of real masa harina dough that doesn’t contain any blends which may contain gluten and fillings which are also gluten-free.

What about the sauces?

Does anyone eat tamales without a good, delicious sauce? I highly doubt it. One of my readers reminded me to pay attention to this topic as well (thank you again, Lori), because you’ll rarely get tamales with no sauce, and even though tamales are gluten-free, the same might not be true for the dip.

So, what are the most common sauces, served with tamales?

Here’s the list:

1. Mole sauce

  • Mole sauce is a traditional sauce that comes from Mexico. It features various ingredients, and in some cases, it might even include chilies and chocolate. According to the traditional recipe, mole sauce is not gluten-free, but you can make some modifications to make it so.

2. Mole Verde

  • Green variation of previously mentioned mole sauce is made with pumpkin seeds, green chilies, and green tomatoes. If you make sure you are using gluten-free chicken broth to prepare it, your mole Verde should be gluten-free as well, so no worries.

3. Salsa

  • Serving salsa with tamales is not a traditional choice, but definitely an interesting one. When using salsa as a sauce for tamales, most people go with salsa verde or tomatillo salsa. The first one isn’t gluten-free while the latter one is. However, you can adjust the recipe for salsa verde to get rid of gluten. All you have to do is use gluten-free Dijon mustard.

4. Crema

  • I love to serve chicken tamales with Mexican crema or American sour cream. This is probably the simplest way of serving, and ideal in a situation when you don’t have enough time to prepare some complicated sauce. If it’s too simple for your taste, you can enhance it by adding a clove of garlic, lime, and cilantro. However, both options are gluten-free.
  • There are many other sauces that go perfectly with tamales and some of them might include gluten. If you want to be sure there isn’t any, always check the list of ingredients. Some cooks add a little bit of wheat flour to thicken different sauces, and this is where the danger hides. If the sauce is thickened using flour, it will contain gluten.
  • If you are making tamales for yourself, I believe you already know what to avoid. On the other hand, if you are eating at the restaurant, feel free to ask for a gluten-free menu or ask the chef to tell you more about the ingredients of the dish you are ordering.


So, the conclusion is that tamales can be gluten-free, but they can also contain gluten.

The safest way is to make them yourself, from ingredients that you’ve picked and know for certain that they don’t have gluten. It’s not much of advice, I know, because it’s not that easy to make them, and it also requires a lot of time.

On the other hand, many tamales that can be bought in the stores or ordered in restaurants may contain gluten, in which case you won’t be eating them.

Thankfully, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined the term “gluten-free” for use in the labeling of foods. That means that all foods labeled gluten-free after August 5, 2014, must meet the requirements of the agency’s gluten-free labeling rule.

It’s encouraging to be able to buy our food with more confidence when we see the label “gluten-free”. Betty was so thankful after she heard all the information that I’ve gathered.

Hope you will find them useful as well and enjoy your gluten-free tamales!

6 thoughts on “An Important Nutrition Question: Are Tamales Gluten-Free Or Not?”

  1. Thank you for this detailed research on tamales. My granddaughter is having a taco birthday party with tamales and I would like to enjoy them but now after reading this and having no way to know what masa they used I think I’ll pass on them. Thank you again.

  2. This was great research there is however one very large mistake. Masa Harina is traditional white baking flour and the photo is Masa Maiz (corn). Tamales are made with Masa Maiz as are corn tortillas. When you go to a Mexican restaurant they will ask what kind of tortillas you want “de Harina or de Maiz) being flour or corn. It can be confusing because Harina translates to flour but it is traditional white flour. Corn flour is referred to as Masa Maiz which literally translates to corn dough. Hope this helps.

  3. Unfortunately, you left out the importance of sauce on the tamales. Many of the red sauces put over the top of your tamales is made with flour!

  4. Dear Lori,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I’ve edited & updated the article accordingly.

    Please check it out and let me know what you think.



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