Is All Vodka Really Gluten-Free?

Is it possible to have a gluten reaction to vodka?

vodka on ice with garnish
What types of vodka are gluten-free?. Cody Rasmussen / Getty Images

Most experts consider vodka to be gluten-free, even if it's distilled from gluten grains (wheat, barley, or rye). However, some people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity react to vodka made from gluten grains. If that's the case for you, consider buying vodka made from potatoes or other non-gluten sources.

Does Distillation Really Make Vodka Gluten-Free?

In theory, the process of distillation removes the gluten protein that causes reactions for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

In fact, the National Institutes of Health states that distilled alcoholic beverages are safe to drink, even if they're made from gluten sources.

That's the theory. However, there's no question that some people do react with truly nasty gluten symptoms from any form of alcohol that started its life as gluten grains... and that includes vodka made from wheat or rye (it's extremely rare to find a vodka that contains barley). In fact, the Celiac Support Association recommends against consuming gluten-based vodkas for this very reason.

It's not clear why alcohol distilled from gluten grains bothers some people, but doesn't bother others. Some experts have speculated that tiny fragments of the gluten protein survive distillation, and that the immune systems of those who are especially sensitive to gluten can detect those partial pieces of gluten. It's also possible that there's something else in the grain—beyond the gluten protein—that survives distillation and causes a reaction in particularly sensitive people.

We don't know for certain, since there has not been any research to prove or disprove any of this, just anecdotal experience from those who react to gluten-grain-based alcohol such as wheat-based vodka. If you find you have what feels like a gluten reaction to gluten-based alcohol such as wheat-based vodka, then it's probably best to avoid those products.

Everyone is different, and even if a study were to show that gluten grain-based vodka were safe, it's important to listen to your own body. As noted, there could be something other than the gluten protein that's responsible for any symptoms you experience.

What Can I Do If You React to Gluten Grain Based Vodka?

If you notice any symptoms with a gluten grain-based vodka, but really like vodka, you're in luck: there are plenty of vodkas on the market that are not wheat-based (although some are made in facilities that also distill gluten grains and could still potentially be a problem due to cross-contamination).

In fact, these "gluten-free vodkas" have become very popular recently. Some people even believe that potato-based or grape-based vodkas are "smoother" and don't provoke as bad a hangover if the person over-indulges. Steering clear of gluten-grain-based vodka should actually be pretty easy, with options ranging from potato vodka, to corn vodka, to grape vodka, and even fig vodka.

Potato vodka is quite common (especially in imports from northern Europe), and one common vodka distillery (Smirnoff) makes its vodka from corn. Other, smaller companies make well-rated vodkas from grapes and sugarcane.

For a complete, extensive list of gluten-free vodkas (including potential cross-contamination issues and some other shopping hints,) check out the Gluten-Free Vodka List.

A Word from Verywell

If you're wondering whether gluten grain-based vodka is truly gluten-free, the key is to listen to your own body. 

Though some sources state that gluten-grain based vodka should be okay for people with celiac disease because of the distillation process (gluten is a protein and proteins aren't volatile and therefore won't distill,) there may be a cause for concern based on anecdotal reports. Whether these reactions are due to the presence of gluten or some other factor is unknown.

Thankfully, for those who wish to enjoy vodka, there is an alternative—vodka made using sources such as corn, grapes, potatoes, or figs that's labeled "gluten-free."

One more thing you should keep in mind: alcohol use in excess can cause problems far beyond a glutening. For example, it can lead to bone loss and osteoporosis, which is already an issue for some people who have celiac disease. 

Sources:

Kasper, Dennis L.., Anthony S. Fauci, and Stephen L.. Hauser. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: Mc Graw Hill education, 2015. Print.

Minnick, F. Should Vodka be Marketed as Gluten Free?. Scientific American. Nov. 18, 2013.

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