Can You Have Malt If You're Gluten-Sensitive?

Most malts are made from gluten grains, but there are exceptions.

Dark Chocolate Malted Milk Balls
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Most malt you'll encounter in the grocery store or out at a restaurant is definitely not gluten-free: Malt traditionally is made with barley, which is one of the three gluten grains (wheat, barley, and rye).

However, there's a growing market for new types of malt that can be used in gluten-free products, and so you can expect to find gluten-free malt in some items, particularly in gluten-free beer.

Here's a rundown of why most malt isn't gluten-free, and when it's actually safe for someone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity to consume malt.

What Is Malt?

Malt is a sweetener used in various food and drink products. For example, you can purchase malt beer (a sweet beer that generally contains lower alcohol than regular beer) and order malted milkshakes (the malt ingredient makes the shakes creamier and adds depth of flavor). Malt frequently is used as an ingredient in cereals (Kellogg's Rice Krispies aren't gluten-free because they contain barley malt, even though the main ingredient is rice).

To make malt, you soak some sort of grain (traditionally barley, but other forms of grain, such as corn or sorghum, also can be used). The soaking causes the grain to germinate (e.g., start to grow), and as part of this process certain starches contained in the grain change their forms, becoming different types of sugar.

Once the sugars have developed in the grains, malt-makers stop the germination process and preserve those sugars by drying the grains with hot air. This process is what makes malt so sweet.

Barley and wheat grains have been prepared in this way for thousands of years in China, Egypt, and other countries where those grains first were cultivated.

Malt probably first was used to make beer, but malted grains also can be served as a sweet paste. For example, samanu is a traditional Persian recipe made with malted wheat.

Confusingly, "malt" is used as both a noun and a verb—the noun "malt" is defined as "a germinated grain, usually barley, often used in brewing and distilling," while "to malt" refers to the process of producing malt.

Places Where Barley Malt Is Used

Ancient civilizations first used malt to make beer, and malt beer, also known as American malt liquor, remains popular today. Top-selling brands include Colt 45, Budweiser Icehouse Edge, and Schlitz O.M.L. In addition, barley malt is found in bottled alcoholic beverages such as Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers and in Smirnoff Ice.

You'll also find barley malt, in the form of malted milk powder, as an ingredient in milkshakes—in fact, this is a pretty popular way to make milkshakes. Nestlé Carnation Original Malted Milk Powder contains both malted wheat and malted barley extracts (along with dry whole milk), rendering it most definitely not gluten-free. Ovaltine, the classic powdered milk flavoring, is made with barley malt extract.

Malt vinegar (yes, made with barley malt) frequently is used to make chips and other snack foods.

 Several different types of candy also contain barley and/or wheat malt as an ingredient. Malted milk balls (Hershey's Whoppers and NECCO Mighty Malts are two examples) include malt made from gluten grains, so you'll need to steer clear of those when you're following the gluten-free diet. And Lindor Truffles contain barley malt, rendering them off-limits as well.

Finally, you can find barley malt as an ingredient in some breakfast cereals, including Kellogg's Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes. That's why so many rice-based and corn-based cereals on grocery store shelves aren't safe for those with celiac or gluten sensitivity.

When Is Malt Safe for People With Celiac Disease?

Malt is safe for someone with celiac disease or with non-celiac gluten sensitivity when it's made from gluten-free grains, rather than gluten grains. It's possible to make malt—grains that are sprouted to turn starch into sugar and then dried—from any grain. It's even possible to make malt from so-called "pseudo-grains" (seeds that aren't in the same family as grains, but which are used in similar ways) such as buckwheat or quinoa.

For example, the Grouse Malt House in Wellington, CO makes malt from millet, buckwheat, oats, maize (corn), and quinoa specifically to be used in the brewing of gluten-free beer. The company's products are certified gluten-free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, which requires products to test below 10 parts per million of gluten.

Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., located in Chilton, Wis., makes sorghum malt, also aimed at gluten-free beer brewers. The company says its malt meets legal U.S. Food and Drug Administration gluten-free standards of less than 20 parts per million of gluten (less gluten is better).

Industry analysts expect additional companies to develop gluten-free malt products to meet demand as the market for gluten-free foods expands.

A Word From Verywell

In theory, you should be able to trust that any malt used in foods specifically labeled "gluten-free" will be made from non-gluten ingredients, such as sorghum (a close relative of corn), buckwheat, or oats. Unfortunately, that's not always the case.

Gluten-free dietitian Tricia Thompson, who runs the gluten-free testing service Gluten-Free Watchdog, reports that a few food manufacturers have used barley malt as ingredients in gluten-free-labeled products, even though the FDA rules don't allow barley-based ingredients in gluten-free foods. The manufacturers will argue that the food in question tests below 20 parts per million (the legal gluten-free standard), but that doesn't matter—gluten-free foods cannot contain barley.

Just to make things more confusing (food labeling regulations are complex), manufacturers do not need to specify on their labels that an ingredient is made with barley (unlike wheat, barley isn't considered a major allergen). So barley can be disguised as "malt" on a food label.

Therefore, if you see "malt," "malt extract," or "malt syrup" in the ingredients list of a product that's labeled "gluten-free," beware—the product may contain barley. Before eating it, you should check in with the manufacturer to see what type of malt was used. Since the market for gluten-free malt made from ingredients like buckwheat and sorghum is growing, it's likely that we'll start to see more "sorghum malt" and "buckwheat malt" listed as ingredients for gluten-free-labeled products.

Source:

Celiac Disease Foundation. What Should I Eat? fact sheet.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Allergens and Gluten-Free Labeling fact sheet.

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