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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.”
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:
- Dr. Marsh has made this claim before.
- No one else seems to be making the claim.
- 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.
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”?