Traveling with any type of dietary restriction is a challenge. In restaurants, it takes a leap of faith to trust the chef understands your allergy or restriction enough to know what not to use (I’m looking at you, soy sauce) and the language barrier can make reading labels nearly impossible (labels in Abu Dhabi were the most challenging for me yet). Nevertheless, it’s far from impossible to overcome.
During my first trip to Rio, I was “only” vegetarian, meaning no meat, but dairy and eggs were okay. Last year, I discovered I was sensitive to gluten, as well. In my experience in Brazil, having one dietary requirement is okay. People will simply nod their head and list off some options for you.
When you throw a second restriction into the mix, I like to say “the software bugs.” There’s a pause with a very clear expression of is this a joke? In my case, people will start listing off vegetarian meals, until I clarify, “Yes, but those have gluten. What doesn’t have gluten?” To which they often respond with a long list of meat-based dishes. Combining the two is simply unheard of 🙂
As a side note: I’ve since become pescatarian. Eating fish in Brazil makes the challenge of gluten-free, (mostly) meat-free food much easier. Without fish, I basically couldn’t go out to eat with any friends unless I wanted to live on french fries with gluten-laden sauces.
Over the course of the past year, I’ve come to learn pretty well how to navigate a gluten-free diet in Rio, especially gluten-free and vegetarian or pescatarian. In fact, I even made a map of gluten-free, vegetarian restaurants in Google that you can check out here. (Let me know if I’m missing anything good!)
When not eating out, 9 times out of 10 it’s easier to shop online for groceries and home-cooked meals. Many supermarkets have gluten-free options, but it’s not the norm yet. For example, I love cereal in the morning, but it took a full year before any supermarket near me carried gluten-free cereal.
For some online, and in-person, options, check out these resources:
- Guanabara (national) is a huge supermarket that has anything you could want. (I find it very similar to Shop Rite, for folks from the Northeast.) Typically it has a health food aisle where you can find gluten-free cookies, granola, flours, etc.
- O Quintal Orgânico (Rio) provides organic produce deliver right to your door. You can set up an automatic subscription for them to deliver as often as you’d like. They have gluten-free granola available, as well as a bunch of veggies, fruits, grains, and seasonings.
- Mundo Verde (national) is a nationwide organic market, a bit like Whole Foods but smaller. They have a lot of specialty items as well, including rice crackers, gluten-free flours, supplements, and so on.
- Natudiet (Rio) is a small health food store next to Shopping Tijuca with specialty items, including fresh foods like gluten-free coxinhas.
- GlutenFree Box (online) is my favorite. It’s a nationwide subscription service that sends a collection of gluten-free items once per month, usually focused on snacks, mixes, drinks, and breads. It’s about $30 USD.
- Vitta Express (online) is an online gluten-free marketplace with everything from gluten-free cereal to beer. (Yes, they ship beer!)
There’s also a great Asian supermarket in Tijuca called Mercearia Jinlong. They have a bunch of rice-based products and other snacks that are all gluten-free as well.
One thing to keep in mind for any local grocery store is that the market in Brazil is very much dependent on supply and demand. In other words, if you see a gluten-free product in your store, buy it — a lot of it — so they know there’s a market. If it just sits on the shelf, they won’t order it again.
Also, it’s very much worth asking if they can order a specific item. Sometimes it’s too complicated and they won’t be able to, but if they’re assured that there is a buyer, that often incentivizes them to try some new products. For example, I often stop at the supermarket near my crossfit gym and, after a month of buying whatever gluten-free products I could find, found that they started carrying a full stock of Schär products and gluten-free beer. It works!
When shopping in person, it can be intimidating to look at each box to figure out which brand works best for you. Here’s a few names to look out for to simplify the process:
- Jasmine (granolas, oatmeals)
- Ammina (crackers, cookies, killer pão de mel)
- Schär (cookies, crackers, breads, cereals)
- Lakeside (beer)
- Ecobras (tofu, hummus, etc.)
- Supino (snack bars, protein bars)
When looking for options, keep an eye out on Facebook and Instagram. A lot of websites don’t have much information or aren’t very frequently updated. However, following a few local stores or business that you know have gluten-free products means you’ll see any new products that come out.
Likewise, feiras are pretty common as well. Essentially, a bunch of small vendors get together with small booths to sell their goods. This is a great way to find local businesses making gluten-free food. Many times, they’ll accept orders via Whatsapp and will deliver on specific days to your neighborhood. Some of my favorites in Rio are:
If all else fails and you’re in a pinch, remember that a lot of Brazilian foods are naturally gluten-free. Pão de queijo, tapioca, açai, rice and beans, farofa (vegetarians, beware that this usually has meat), and omelettes are generally very easily available. When it comes to desert, a lot of chocolate does have gluten as a filler, but keep an eye out for any banana-based deserts. For example, it’s really common to have roasted bananas with cinnamon on the menu — it’s delicious! Drink-wise, gluten-free beer is exceedingly rare, but Skol Beats (not Skol!) is gluten free, as well as cachaça.
To summarize, my top tips for eating gluten-free in Rio are:
- Shop online.
- Instagram and Facebook are your friends.
- If you don’t see what you want, ask if it can be stocked.
- Tapioca and pão de queijo are always good fallbacks. (And Skol Beats!)