Can I Be Gluten-Free and Live in China? – One Woman’s Story

I’d already worked in China for two years before I discovered that I needed to be gluten-free. Thankfully, my life story brought me back to the States for a few years while I was first learning to eat GF. While I learned to be GF in the States, I got married and we started our family. Because my husband and I both wanted to return to China, we were concerned that I be able to live GF in China. Five years and two kids later, we decided to give it a try.

One advantage I had was that I could already read some Chinese. The words for wheat, rye, barley and oats all use the character “麦” (mai4). I had experience cooking from scratch in the States, and rice, meat, vegetables and fruit are all naturally gluten-free. We’d also heard of a few expats who were living in China GF.

There were some hiccups and along the way. Finding an international health insurance plan that would cover someone with CD was a big challenge. My search for GF soy sauce failed. Rice noodles were hard to find in my part of China; the rice crackers had a small amount of gluten.

Some initial digestive troubles sent me online, where I learned about labeling differences (in China, maltodextrin, MSG and starch are often wheat-based) and the controversy about local Chinese milk products.

But there were blessings, too. Within days, I’d met another expat who was trying to live GF in China. She shared her blend of GF flours with me—corn, millet and sticky rice—that worked with most baked goods and were readily available locally. I found occasional labels with English. Several area restaurants seemed to comply with our request to hold the soy sauce. Western-style rice pasta was available through online order. Later, my friend and I experimented and produced GF dumplings.

And I stayed healthy—I wasn’t losing weight like I did before my diagnosis. My nursing baby got comments about how healthy and plump he was. I’d describe my diet as 98% gluten-free—maybe more. Months later, it still seems to be working.

If you are thinking about coming to China, read all you can online about living gluten-free living here. I especially recommend Decide what amount of risk you are willing to take with your diet. If you have friends in China, ask if they know any gluten-free expats you could communicate with ahead of time. (You can also contact me through Deb Brammer if you have more questions about this post.)

If you living in China already, research all you can and give gluten-free eating your very best attempt. Being 90% or 95% gluten-free will be much better for you than deciding not to try.

Each person’s comfort zone, gluten-tolerance and willingness to cut corners on their GF is different. This is working for me—I can’t make guarantees on what is right for you.

To bring: GF soy sauce, GF bouillon, non-stick bakeware that will fit in a toaster oven (I recommend silicon.) You might consider bringing some spices or GF staples to get you started.

 Chinese words:

All those麦 words that I can’t have:

小麦 wheat, 大麦 rye, 黑麦 barley, 燕麦 oats

麦芽 malt, 麦芽糊精 maltodextrin,

麦粉 wheat flour (sometimes called 面粉mianfen)

A 麦 word that I can have:


(this grain has a very distinctive look;

if you’ve used it before, you’ll remember it.)

Some other words to watch for:

淀粉 starch, 味精 MSG.


4 thoughts on “Can I Be Gluten-Free and Live in China? – One Woman’s Story

  1. Thank you SO much for the tips, and particularly the Chinese characters to be mindful and watchful for. We’re heading to China in about 8 weeks, and this post has eased my mind and started me thinking about what I’ll pack from home for my GF 5 year old daughter.

  2. Thank you so much for this post! We’ve been living in China for six years, but suspect that my daughter has celiac disease, and took her off gluten almost a year ago. (We live in Hainan where there is no celiac test available, and we’re not at this point really up to putting her back on it for a test anywhere else.) But since we took her off, I have avoided anything that says 麦芽 on it, and then I was reading that maltodextrin didn’t actually have gluten, and I googled what that looks like in Chinese, and it starts with 麦芽 and then I started to be worried I’d deprived her of lots of things she might have been otherwise able to have, so I was googling it, and found you, and seeing that you avoid it as well was helpful. Thanks so much!

    • Here’s a comment from my China contact: I used a reference called The Gluten-free Bible by Jax Peters Lowell to help me answer this. My edition is from 2005 (before some of America’s stricter labeling laws. Lowell says malt usually is not gluten-free but that maltodextrin is always gluten-free in America (not always elsewhere.) (“Starch” is another ingredient that could be gluten-based at times.) It’s been several years since I lived in China, but perhaps there are other expats or Chinese friends who could help you learn a more about the process/labeling of maltodextrin in China. Also, there are some discussion chains on Celiac blogs about whether or not minute quantities of gluten in maltodextrin will cause trouble to those on gluten-free diets, so you might look at some of that as well. It would be great if your daughter would be able to have a few more foods available to her without compromising her health.

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