Gluten in beer? Little is clear. (On Omission, “English beer,” the Gluten Summit, and other mysteries)

You know the old saying, “Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear”? Then you may also know that neither half is true: it’s not the kind, but the total amount of alcohol (and water) you drink that determines how ill you feel the morning after.

But, for those of us with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, beer—in any amount, before or after the tequila shots—contains enough gluten to make us sick. That, my friends, is true.

Or is it? This past week, the internet’s been abuzz about two surprising claims regarding gluten in beer.

various beers in glasses

Not gluten-free. (Right?!)
Photo © Cambridge Brewing Co. | Flickr

Omitting Omission no more?

On Monday, the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA), one of several organizations we rely upon—for better or worse—to certify gluten-free products, announced that it has recognized Omission beer as gluten-free.

If you happen to have missed it, Omission is a beer made with hops, yeast, water, and…malted barley. As I’m sure you know, gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley. Going simply by that definition, one might suspect that Omission is not gluten-free.

However, there’s an added confusion (isn’t there always?): according to Omission, the barley has been processed in such a way that the gluten may be considered removed (or as good as removed). Any “small pieces” that remain supposedly won’t set off our jumpy immune systems the way gluten usually does.

Omission’s own website helpfully (and buttcoveringly) includes an archive of the tests they’ve run on every batch of beer brewed, where skeptical consumers can see for themselves that their beer tested below 10 ppm gluten. The only problem is…we don’t know for sure that the test they used (RIDASCREEN® Gliadin competitive ELISA [Art No. R7021], if you’re curious) actually works.

Gluten is not just one protein; it’s a composite, and slightly different versions of it appear in wheat (gliadin), barley (hordein), and rye (secalin). Although the test is intended to detect all of them, others think it might not be sensitive enough to hordein (in barley and, therefore, Omission). If the test can’t find the particles, there’s no way to know whether they’re there or not. The Omission website admits, “Although scientific evidence supports the testing, the evidence is not conclusive.”

Because of all the confusion over Omission (further explained, very well, here), many of us have chosen to skip it. So when the CSA gave its seal of approval to the beer, the outcry began. Posts at Gluten Dude and Gluten-Free Fun, among others, pointed out contradictions between the CSA’s described standards for certification and its stance in the press release on Omission beer.

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From my perspective, the main issue is the way the CSA gave us the news. The press release indicates that it tested Omission using not the perhaps-faulty ELISA test, but rather mass spectrometry testing, perceived to be more accurate for detecting hordein.

Unfortunately, the press release didn’t address the differences between the tests (and introduced further confusion by including a blurb, presumably provided by Omission, that references the company’s own ELISA testing). So for us reading at home, it’s hard to see why the CSA has suddenly reversed their stated position that “‘Ingredients ‘specially processed to remove gluten’ [are] not allowed—with present available commercial methodology the extent or consistency of the processes is not measurable.”

The CSA has now updated that portion of their “Defining the Term Gluten-Free” page to also read, “Allowed if documented absent of celiac toxic amino acid fractions.”

There are two problems with this revised definition:

  1. The old definition still appears, so it’s an internal contradiction. If available methodology can’t measure the extent of gluten in specially processed grain ingredients, then how could those ingredients be “documented absent” of gluten? The CSA needs to take a position on mass spectrometry testing as an improved alternative to ELISA testing, not just put both “It’s not okay” and “It’s okay” in their guidelines.
  2. The change went up after the press release. You can’t just change your standards to make way for a product you want to approve—and I’m not sure that’s what the CSA was doing, but it sure looks that way. If you’re updating your standards, update the standards first, then approve the product that now fits them.

We now have trouble understanding the CSA’s guidelines and less ability to trust their judgment. So is Omission beer really gluten-free? Hard to know.

Some people won’t eat or drink anything that contains a gluten-containing grain, no matter how processed. But most of us do drink distilled spirits (such as vodka) derived from wheat, rye, or barley, since they’re considered to be gluten-free according to the best possible tests.

If new, validated technology indicates that beer can now be processed similarly to vodka to destroy its gluten content, then fine. Great! But I’m not sure yet that the technology is validated, and the CSA hasn’t convinced me (or really bothered trying). We’ll see what statements come next, but they’ve already messed up by not making their position on mass spectrometry testing clear before stamping Omission as approved.

Oh, but actually, all beer is gluten-free. Wait, what?

On the other hand, Dr. Michael Marsh—yes, he of the “Marsh” I, II, and III classifications of villous atrophy, a celiac expert for sure—might say that all this hullabaloo is for nothing. At the “Gluten Summit” on November 11th, he went on record that it’s perfectly fine for those with celiac disease to drink “good English beer.”

I bet he doesn't know if it's gluten-free, either. Photo © Erik Gustafson | Flickr

I bet he doesn’t know if it’s gluten-free, either.
Photo © Erik Gustafson | Flickr

If you skipped the Gluten Summit, I don’t blame you. Such a mishmash of experts and quacks I have never seen united in one place. In the Marsh interview—the only one that I watched in full—the interviewer asked leading questions (which Marsh answered with such polite negations as, “Ah, [sigh], well, maybe it would be nice to think of that in that way. I’m really not sure [pause] that that is so”), and didn’t manage to establish an agreement with Marsh on the actual definition of gluten sensitivity (fair enough, since no one has).

So when Marsh announced there’s no evidence that beer (specifically English beer) contains gluten, I thought that either it was true (because he seemed like the reasonable one) or that he was pulling his interviewer’s leg. When I scouted around, I found:

  1. Dr. Marsh has made this claim before.
  2. No one else seems to be making the claim.
  3. The gluten content in beer has been tested—here, for just one example—and proven to exist.

Is “English” beer, like Omission, processed in such a way that the gluten is absent or no longer harmful? And have most sensitive measures (e.g., mass spectrometry testing) proved it? I don’t think so! So far as I can tell, the answer is “no.” English beer comes in as many varieties as any other beer, if Wikipedia can be believed, and English beer brewers such as St. Peter’s distinguish between gluten-containing and gluten-free varieties.

If there’s a loophole here, I’m not seeing it, and Marsh didn’t prove it.

To conclude…

The CSA and Dr. Marsh are experts, in their respective ways, on celiac disease and gluten. But I don’t just take the word of experts—no informed consumer does. We look to their evidence, and their standards for gathering it. In this case, neither Marsh nor the CSA has convinced me of anything. They’ve left me with more questions than I had before.

Now, I don’t even like beer. Never did. So while everyone else bickers about mass spectrometry vs. ELISA testing, English vs. Omission beer, I’m happy enough to just move on. If you, like me, prefer wine anyway, I hope that we can share a cheers to that, and work this out later.

Have you been following one or the other of these controversies, and where do you fall? Are you in favor of developing gluten-removed ingredients or would you rather steer clear? And what the heck is “English beer”?

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21 thoughts on “Gluten in beer? Little is clear. (On Omission, “English beer,” the Gluten Summit, and other mysteries)

  1. Shaina says:

    No idea on what “English” beer is, but I can add my own inconclusive-but-I’m-never-touching-the-stuff-again story on Omission… I do love beer, or I used to back before I stopped drinking it (that was one thing I recognized long before my diagnosis, so I’ve been a cider and wine drinker for quite some time now). I tried Omission at the GF Expo back in September, after getting the spiel on the gluten removal process and the Elisa test results and all that – and it was delicious and made me so excited that I could have great beer back in my life! And then the next day I had the single most violently-ill gluten reaction I’ve had yet.

    Obviously I was at the Expo trying lots of new foods, so I really can’t know that it was the Omission beer – but once all the vomiting stopped, haha, I did a lot of reading about Omission, and the problems with the Elisa test being probably not valid, and lots of stories of other people having similar problems with it, and decided that Omission is firmly on the “sadly not for me” list. I’m not sure about the mass spec testing they did – that’s a new one to me – but the research I found on the Elisa was explaining that their process might just break the gluten/gliadin it into pieces that the test can’t detect, but not actually get rid of the parts of the proteins that trigger reactions. No idea on what the mass spec is able to do, but let’s just say enough of my insides became outsides that I’m really not inclined to use my body as a test of that again…

    On the other hand, I’ve gotten to try St Peter’s GF beer, and Green’s, Celia Saison, Dogfish Head’s GF beer, and New Planet (all made from sorghum/non gluten containing grains) and those have ranged from pretty decent to actually really great beers! So there are a lot of options out there for the beer-appreciators out there that don’t require taking any kind of risk : )

    • Molly says:

      Shaina, I don’t blame you at all for steering clear after that experience. Sorry to hear you got sick after the Expo. I also felt ill after the Expo but think I may have just eaten too much! Then again, I did realize one power bar I’d tried there without thinking is actually processed on the same lines as wheat, which for me is always a no-no. It’s hard not to let your guard down at an event like that and for the most part everything there is trustworthy, but clearly not everything…Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience. I have tried and liked some of the definitely-GF beers, though not enough to request them instead of cider or a cocktail!

      P.S. Beer was one of the first things I noticed and cut out too–no doubt part of the reason I don’t like it much. More coincidences!

  2. potatochip says:

    I’m from England and used to regularly drink real ale which is what he’s calling English beer. I also used to regularly clear the pub with smells coming out of my arse. Switching to cider (or hard cider for you Americans) after coeliac diagnosis and the smells stopped. Not conclusive peer reviewed research I grant you but enough to convince me he is talking bollocks and never to touch real ale again.

    • Molly says:

      Haha! Sorry to hear that, but I got a good laugh out of the way you put it. It’s very odd that just this one doctor is going around saying this. Almost seems like an out-of-season April Fool’s joke.

  3. echoey13 says:

    Before I knew I was celiac beer even one beer would give me a 3 day hangover. Beer got me more than bread.

    As for the mass spec technique… It is currently an unvalidated method and it is inappropriate for the CSA to use it to go against the TTB’s ruling that, at this time, beer from barley cannot be gluten free.

    • Molly says:

      Thanks for weighing in. It’s definitely troubling that they’re relying on an unvalidated method (though I thought I read recently it had moved closer to being validated…but can’t turn up the article, so maybe I’m imagining it). Their response to the negative feedback has also been troubling. Lots of excuses.

      • echoey13 says:

        I’ve scanned the literature and there are still some basic technical challenges being studied and published. One recent article was trying to add molecules to the gluten to improve its ability to go into the liquid that is supposed to dissolve compounds tested on the mass spec. I’ve seen papers showing relative amounts of fragments of proteins but no published article on a method ready for validation.

        Thanks again for posting on this! CSA needs to know we don’t approve of this move.

        • Molly says:

          Thanks for this extra info. It really is too bad that this organization is in such a rush to approve a product if, as you suggest, the research is not there. Lots of other people have been calling this a “money talks” situation, and unfortunately that’s probably true. Sigh.

  4. Jess says:

    Thanks for your analysis of this entire situation Molly! I haven’t been online much this week so your post is my sole source of the Omission Beer debate (and an excellent one at that!) I used to enjoy beer before my Celiac Diagnosis then transitioned to wine and am now doing ciders without added sulfites!
    If I was still drinking beers, I wouldn’t touch Omission beer with a ten foot pole…just my 2 cents. Also, totally unrelated, but I loved your whole “quacks and experts” take on the gluten summit. I watched one talk (one of the quack ones) and stopped because I was so too upse about the subject matter (blog post on this coming soon!)
    Jess

    • Vik says:

      I too was very tickled by your quacks and experts description. I wrote about this over at Jess’ blog, I thought some of the speakers were really good, but some of them just made me shake my head, and listening, I sometimes felt downright gaggy. I appreciate the time and effort it took to put the summit together, and agree with you that sometimes I had more questions what I was done listening, since some of it seemed so far out, and there was often such a conflict of opinions. And as far as beer, I never did like beer, and if I did, I sure would not drink omission.

      • Molly says:

        Thanks, Vik. I wish I had listened to more, just to be able to critique it better, but from what I’ve heard it wouldn’t really have been worth the time. If any of it is important, revelatory stuff, I assume it’ll get published somewhere and I’ll see it then!

    • Molly says:

      I think I saw a comment from you somewhere about that Summit presentation, so I’m looking forward to the full post. I really don’t get why some people agreed to participate…but then, that’s what I was thinking of Dr. Marsh and he went and started saying crazy things too! Who knows. Thanks for reading and I’m glad it was helpful. :)

  5. I’m in the steer clear camp. If I was going to knowingly risk a glutening it would be for something good like a donut. Beer would be way down on the list. :)

  6. […] Physically, the GF Sagittarius must watch for liver issues (which you won’t be surprised to learn are associated with celiac disease) and alcoholism. So put down that gluten-removed beer! […]

  7. PeterOlins says:

    Great article, Molly, but it’s hard to respond to two completely different scandals in one post! But I really appreciate the irony that the CSA debacle is all about removing every last trace of gluten from beer, while Dr. Marsh was touting gluten-rich British beer as being perfectly safe!

    The csaceliacs web page on the definition of GF actually saw two changes this week: first, an extra sentence relating to foods that have had gluten removed (ie stuff like beer); then a more extensive overhaul, talking about a new exception for all types of food: “Innovative Category: Allowed if documented absent of celiac toxic amino acid fractions, September 2013″. http://www.csaceliacs.info/defining_the_term_glutenfree.jsp [It's strange how a reference to September 2013 just showed up yesterday.] Who knows what changes next week might bring? I suppose a retraction and apology is unlikely. I’m also puzzled that the latest, controversial, press release is not listed on the site. You have to wonder if anyone at CSA actually looks at their own website.

    Now for the 29 hour-long interviews in the “Gluten Summit”. Not really a summit, this was a puzzling mix of interviews, ranging from some of the latest science to a lot of hot air and wild speculation—all treated with the same tone. I learnt some new things, but I’m afraid that many doctors and people in the general public who don’t follow this field closely may have come away with some wild myths. I think the main problem is that most of the interviewees were MD’s—experienced at making pronouncements and sounding confident. This may be entertaining, and may work well to inspire confidence in the doctor’s office, but it wears a bit thin when you actually have to listen to a recording of people shooting themselves in the foot. Overall, I have never seen so many myths crammed into so small a space. [No, sorry, it would take hours to deconstruct the series of interviews.]

    Regarding Dr. Michael Marsh, the father of the “Marsh rating” of the stages of celiac disease damage to the intestine, he raised some interesting ideas about the flaws in the current oversimplifications of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But I agree with you, Molly, I was shocked when he started talking about celiac-safe British beers, based on barley malt. I couldn’t tell if he was unaware of the extensive scientific literature on barley-based beer, or whether he has made a huge discovery of gluten molecules that are still safe for celiacs. Either way, I would have loved to probe this topic further.

    • Molly says:

      You know, I thought about doing two separate posts, but I only have so much patience for examining this kind of nonsense, so I figured I’d just get it over with in one! :)

      It’s very odd that the CSA is now claiming their website was hacked, etc. I still believe it was more likely a clerical issue of not keeping their website up to date with their press releases, perhaps exacerbated by their haste to include this new product. They may also be hesitant to broadcast their acceptance of this test result, knowing that the test itself isn’t yet widely considered to be accurate, but that strikes me as very sketchy. Honestly, even if their website DID get hacked, they should have realized that would sound like an absurd lie and just said that they hadn’t done a good job of updating their website. Maybe their PR people are all brainfogged from too much gluten-removed beer.

      As for Dr. Marsh, I do my fair share of complaining about doctors, but it didn’t occur to me to look at it from the perspective you suggested. Makes a lot of sense that they’d be spouting off when you look at it as part of their job description (not that it’s a way I feel great about looking at it).

  8. Bec says:

    Well put – sums up how I feel about the gluten summit stuff!!! i wish you could skip through that powerpoint, and maybe some picture about what they are going on about in the gut lining would be good, it does get tedious listening to a couple old fellas rant on about gastro stuff.
    on the subject of beer, i love it and have tried a range and all do give me a nasty reaction! the cloudier the worse i think! but my love of beer is getting me into sorghum beer, i can not find any in the bottle-os in this small place i live here in Australia but i can brew my own! i hope it is what i am looking for!

    • Molly says:

      Hi Bec, thanks for commenting! I agree, wading through much of the Gluten Summit was a bit of a chore. I only listened to a couple interviews because I didn’t feel I was getting much more than the occasional laugh out of it, anyway. I tried St. Peter’s sorghum beer the other day (not sure if that’s available in Australia) and it was tasty! Good luck and props to you for brewing your own. It’s a wild world out there. :)

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