Over the past several years, the gluten-free community has seen several beers come on the market that are made with barley (a gluten grain), but advertised as "gluten-free" or "gluten-removed."
But are they really safe? Unfortunately for beer lovers, that's not clear.
What Really Happens with 'Gluten-Removed' Beer
To make this type of beer, brewers start with barley, which gives the beer a traditional flavor (many people dislike the taste of beer brewed with gluten-free grain such as sorghum). Then, they add an enzyme that breaks down gluten and other proteins.
Note that I said "breaks down" gluten. It doesn't actually remove the gluten from the beer — instead, it knocks down the gluten (which is a large, cumbersome molecule) into much smaller pieces. These pieces are too small to be detected in laboratory tests, and, according to those making these beers, should be too small for your body to detect as "gluten," as well.
The resulting brew tests below the currently accepted "gluten-free" standard of less than 20 parts per million. But that's where the controversy begins.
Gluten detection isn't a particularly straightforward process, and there are several methods in use that can produce different results when used to test the same product.
To test its finished beer, Omission Beer — one of the brewers using this process — uses a gluten test called the Competitive R5 ELISA, which is used to test foods that are "hydrolyzed," or broken down. This test looks for a specific lengthy fragment of the gluten protein, and returns a negative result if it doesn't find that fragment.
But Are Those Gluten Fragments Potentially Problematic?
Researchers aren't certain whether these small fragments of the gluten protein can still cause reactions and (in people with celiac disease) damage to the small intestine. There's also some concern in the scientific community that the Competitive R5 ELISA misses gluten that can be detected by other testing methods.
The U.S. government is worried enough about this issue to prevent brewers from labeling anything "gluten-free" that contains de-glutened grains. In a 2012 ruling, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau told manufacturers of both brewed beverages (like beer) and distilled beverages (like vodka and whiskey) that they cannot use the term "gluten-free" if the product's ingredients include wheat, barley or rye.
Although the alcohol bureau has primary jurisdiction over beer, the Food and Drug Administration's finalized rules on gluten-free labeling do extend to beer, and the agency will be keeping an eye on both beers made from gluten-free grains and "gluten-removed" beers made from barley to make certain they comply with those regulations. The agency also intends to issue a proposed rule to address the issue of fermented or hydrolyzed products, which can include beers.
- Labeling Rules for Gluten Grain-Containing Alcoholic Beverages
- Your Questions Answered on the FDA Gluten-Free Labeling Rules
So Should You Drink 'Gluten-Removed' Beer?
Well, the jury's still out: some people report that they're fine after drinking it, while others report that it gives them a bad glutening. (See my previous post and vote in the poll here: Beer Made with 'De-Glutened' Barley: Would You Drink It?)
My own personal experience and history involves some bad reactions to distilled alcohol made from gluten grains, and I won't be trying barley-based "gluten-removed" beer. You'll need to make your own decision on this, but I recommend steering clear, at least until there's better research on these types of hydrolyzed gluten products and their effects on your body.
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