Gluten-Removed Beer - Is It Safe on the Gluten-Free Diet?

Experts question whether testing is accurate on Omission, Daura beers

Is 'gluten-removed' beer really safe when you're gluten-free?. Getty Images/Dana Hoff

Omission Beer and other so-called "gluten-removed" beers are brewed with barley (which contains gluten), but undergo a process that breaks down gluten. However, researchers have found that they may not be truly gluten-free, and therefore they may be unsafe for people with celiac disease.

Therefore, despite marketing that targets the gluten-free community, experts warn people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity to steer clear of these "gluten-removed" beers.

What Really Happens with 'Gluten-Removed' Beer

"Gluten-removed" beer brands include Omission Beer (the top gluten-removed beer in the United States), Estrella Daura Damm beer (made by Damm S.A. in Barcelona, Spain), and Two Brothers Prairie Path (a craft brew from Illinois). 

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. The enzyme doesn't actually remove the gluten from the beer—instead, it actually breaks down the gluten molecule (which is a large, cumbersome molecule) into much smaller pieces of the original molecule. 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 (and react to) as "gluten," as well.

The resulting brew tests below the currently accepted "gluten-free" standard of less than 20 parts per million. In fact, Daura Damm advertises that it contains fewer than 3 parts per million of gluten. 

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 exact 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 haven't been sure 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.

Research Shows Celiacs React to 'Gluten-Removed" Beer

A study conducted by the Gluten Intolerance Group sought to answer the question of whether people with celiac disease can safely drink gluten-removed beer. The study, conducted in partnership with the University of Chicago's Celiac Research Center, used blood samples from 31 people with celiac disease to see if their bodies were reacting to gluten-free beer, "gluten-removed" beer, and conventional beer.

The study found evidence of an immune system reaction to the "gluten-removed" beer in two people with celiac disease whose blood was tested, but not in any of the control subjects.

Therefore, the researchers concluded, the study may indicate that "gluten-removed" beer contains fragments of gluten that can cause people with celiac disease to react.

Based on this study, the Gluten Intolerance Group said it would not certify as "gluten-free" any "gluten-removed" beer made with barley.

A Word from Verywell

This is a controversial subject: Note that some people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity report that they're fine after drinking Omission and other "gluten-removed" beers, while others report that those beers give them a bad glutening. Therefore, you'll need to make your own decision on whether to drink these beers or not.

Fortunately, there are multiple truly gluten-free beers on the market you can drink. Alternatively, you can stick with gluten-free hard cider, or other types of gluten-free alcoholic beverages.

Source:

Allred LK et al.  The Celiac Patient Antibody Response to Conventional and Gluten-Removed BeerJournal of AOAC International. 2017 Mar 1;100(2):485-491.

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