Are Tamales Gluten Free? A Guide to Ingredients

Nicole Austin

If you're avoiding gluten but love tamales, follow these tips.

Mexican cuisine is generally a go-to for those who are avoiding gluten, either due to necessity or preference. When speaking of one of our favorite dishes, tamales, you may wonder — are tamales gluten free?

One of the most prominent ingredients in tamales — which have roots in several Mesoamerican cultures and can be found in countries including Guatemala and Costa Rica — is corn in the form of masa dough. Masa dough is made from ground corn flour, or masa harina, that is softened by an acidic ingredient, usually lime water (not the fruit lime), AKA calcium hydroxide.

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The resulting masa harina is rehydrated into a dough by adding water and allowing it to set. This dough also has a form of fat or lard mixed in to make it fluffier and is then added to a tamale as the staple ingredient. 

Without the added lard, it can also be pressed into a corn tortilla or gordita, among other Latin American dishes.

Is Corn Safe for People with Celiac Disease?

Corn is considered safe for most people with celiac disease, a chronic autoimmune illness that causes reactions of various severity and type for those affected when they consume or come in contact with gluten. If you have a gluten intolerance, you know that using gluten-free ingredients is really important!

While corn may irritate a sensitive system, it is naturally gluten-free and often used as a base for Mexican foods. Corn tortillas, for example, are generally a gluten-free food that is a great alternative to flour tortillas for modifying a recipe.

It can be confusing because there is such a thing as “corn gluten,” but that is not the same as the gluten protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Corn is one of the 8 safe grains for gluten-intolerant individuals, which also includes the following:

  • Sorghum
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Buckwheat
  • Amaranth
  • Teff
  • Brown rice

These grains are considered free of gluten in their natural state, and that’s the most important distinction to remember. Products on the market are sometimes modified or created using ingredients that can alter a product’s safety for those with celiac disease.

If maintaining a gluten-free diet is essential to your health, be sure to look for products labeled gluten-free when buying them from grocery stores or markets. Without this label, you may be taking your chances.

Also, be mindful of your reactions or responses to various grains. Some people may find they need to avoid all forms of grains to have better health and results, whereas others can have some or all of the “safe” grains.

Every individual’s system is different, and it is most important to listen to your body and to follow the direction of a doctor or other qualified professional when determining what is best for you.

(That professional isn’t me!)

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Are Tamales Gluten-Free?

The answer for this is kind of vague, but it’s honest: that depends.

Traditional tamales are mostly made of masa dough, which is gluten-free unless otherwise modified. The best way to ensure that your masa is gluten-free is to make tamales yourself at home, or to seek premade dough that is labeled as a certified gluten-free product.

Anything else you add to the tamale can potentially add gluten as well.

Sauces and spices may include gluten-containing ingredients or traces of gluten. Gluten also hides in surprising places, so always check your ingredient list labels and look for verified gluten-free certification.

Common spices used include garlic powder, sea salt, onion powder, and chili pepper — in addition to masa flour and any fillings. (Pork tamales are particularly popular.)

If you’re unsure, contact the manufacturer directly. Most have websites with FAQs or simple contact forms or numbers.

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Are Tamales Healthy?

Tamales are very nutritious due in part to the high fiber content and vitamin B3 found in masa.

Fiber supports digestive health by keeping your system regular. Studies show that most Americans get less than half the suggested amount of daily fiber, making delicious tamales a sound decision for people looking to improve their health through food.

Vitamin B3, also known as niacin, helps the body convert food into usable energy, regulates the nervous and digestive systems, and improves skin health. The vitamin B3 found in corn can be further accentuated by adding other high-B3 foods such as avocado, beans, lentils, and peppers.

Fillings, in particular, are a great opportunity to add protein and vegetables into your diet. A protein-based tamale filling can also add iron. Iron helps transport oxygen to cells, keeping you feeling healthy and revitalized.

Vegetables contain vitamins and more fiber, making them a wonderful addition to tamales.

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Are Tamales Good for You?

Apart from the potential to be very filling and nutritionally dense, tamales can be bad for you if you use unhealthy ingredients or do not exercise portion control.

Tamales also contain fat through the traditional lard used in masa.

Lard is a source of saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which have been associated with heart diseases and obesity.

The high fat content of lard is essential to providing the texture found in tamales, so skimping on it isn’t really an option.

You can replace lard with solidified coconut oil or vegetable shortening if you’re looking for a vegetarian tamales. Coconut oil does modify the delicious flavors slightly, whereas vegetable shortening does not.

Vegetable oil and butter are also gluten-free options, though they are harder to balance at times. Vegetable oil is, however, a healthier option than shortening.

Despite being high in saturated fat, tamales also contain unsaturated fats, which are heart-healthy. This information can feel somewhat contradictory.

It’s best to remember that most dieticians still suggest eating anything questionable sparingly and in moderation.

Occasional consumption of foods that contain fats and higher calories can still be part of a healthy diet, especially when consumed in smaller quantities. It’s all about balance!

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How Many Tamales Per Person?

If you’re serving multiple people delicious gluten-free tamales, you may wonder how many you should prepare.

Generally, it's a good idea to plan for 2-3 tamales per adult, assuming they are average-sized. This number also depends on the person's age, as young children typically eat less than their adult counterparts.

Also, factor in what other offerings you may have. If you are serving other dishes with tamales, such as black beans or a Mexican dish like street corn, it’s fair to assume that people will eat less.

Having too many is not a problem, as tamales store well in the fridge and can also be frozen.

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How Many Calories Are in Tamales?

Homemade tamales are crafted in various sizes with ingredients that may contain added calories, sugars, or fats. Tamales manufactured by retailers have a predictable nutritional profile that can easily be tracked, but homemade tamales are at the creator's whim, making them sometimes much larger or smaller than average.

Tamales that are manufactured should have a nutritional label or information available. If you’re eating tamales at a restaurant, most restaurants have calorie information on the menu or can provide it if needed.

When calculating the calories in homemade tamales, you must factor in the amount of each ingredient used. Apps and programs that track fitness and intake are a good, easy way to get a fairly accurate calorie count if you’re watching your intake.

If you want to control your caloric intake and have a low-calorie tamale, add more fresh vegetables and lean meats and eliminate added sauces or toppings.

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Are Tamales Low Carb?

Tamales are not a low-carb food.

Mexican tamales contain around 34 grams of carbohydrates each. Therefore, they are not considered a diabetic-friendly food, and caution should be used for people with high blood pressure.

If you’re looking for keto-friendly recipes, tamales will not be it. However, we do have several keto recipes to offer if it turns out that tamales don’t fit into your lifestyle.

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Nicole is a self-published author of fiction novels, and a lover of food and spending time in the kitchen with her six children. She lives in coastal Maine where she loves exploring new recipes especially those that can save time, money and wow a crowd.

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