I was a little startled (and somewhat dismayed) this week when I saw this headline: "Celiac Sprue Association Recognizes Omission Beer As Risk-Free for Celiacs," and read that the CSA had awarded Omission its gluten-free certification seal.
Risk-free? Certified gluten-free? Seriously?
As many of you no doubt know, Omission beer is made from barley that's then treated with an enzyme to break down -- not remove -- the gluten. I recommend against drinking these barley-based beers if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity -- although some people don't react to them, others definitely do.
It didn't make sense to me to see the Celiac Sprue Association promoting a barley-based beer as "risk-free," since the CSA is arguably the most cautious of the various non-profit organizations working for the benefit of people who can't consume gluten. The CSA's gluten-free certification program calls for products to contain less than 5 parts per million of gluten and to meet other stringent criteria -- it seemed as though it would be difficult for a barley-based product to pass muster in such a program.
So what in the world was going on? It turns out to be a somewhat complicated story.
First of all, CSA executive director Mary Schluckebier apologizes for the headline calling Omission "risk-free," -- she says CSA never intended to quantify Omission as "risk-free," and in fact doesn't consider it to be risk-free. The CSA isn't endorsing Omission beer, either, Schluckebier tells me.
However, it's true that Omission Beer applied for and met the criteria for the CSA Recognition Seal program, and therefore was awarded CSA certification.
According to Schluckebier, Omission actually applied under a new section of the CSA program designed for products that are made from wheat, barley, rye or oats but rendered gluten-free (this part of the program actually was created for new types of oats that have been bred to eliminate the oat proteins to which many of us react).
Omission used expensive independent mass spectrometry testing to show that its beer contained less than 5 parts per million of gluten protein in its final form, Schluckebier says. In fact, she reports, the testing indicates that Omission contains less than 1 part per million of gluten.
(As an aside, she tells me she fully expected the beer to fail the testing, and was quite surprised when it passed.)
Based on this testing and the rest of Omission's application, it was clear the company had met CSA's standards for its certification program. Therefore, CSA awarded Omission its recognition seal, she says. "They met the criteria we would use for any of the other companies," Schluckebier says.
So how is this result possible, if so many people say they react to the beer?
Omission's proprietary enzyme-based process breaks down the gluten in the barley into very small pieces -- pieces that don't contain the sequences of molecules that make most people react. However, there are some people whose bodies may still recognize those small molecular fragments as "gluten," prompting a reaction.
In addition, some new research hints that compounds other than gluten (but still found in gluten grains) may cause symptoms we associate with celiac and gluten sensitivity, at least in some people. It's a complicated picture, and scientists are only beginning to understand it.
Schluckebier says she's pleased with the process that allowed Omission to receive CSA certification. In no way is CSA implying that Omission is "risk-free" or safe for everyone, but the certification process and results provide people with additional information they can use to judge whether or not they want to consume a particular product, she says.
"We need to have people act on facts, not fear," she adds.
For the record, these results don't change my own decision on drinking gluten-removed beer -- I'm still not interested in trying it. But everyone needs to make their own decisions on this (which is the point Schuckebier made, as well). Here's some more information:
Schluckebier says she's very interested in getting feedback from the celiac and gluten-sensitive community on Omission beer as part of CSA's ongoing certification review process. If you have something to say about it, use CSA's contact page.
Photo © Getty Images/Jack Andersen