Tag Archives: gluten-free beer

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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A superlative GFAF Expo Roundup: Part 2

So, you read Part 1, but you’re still wondering who had the best donut? Never fear, Part 2 is here.

Remember, I’m giving out a package of some of my goodies to one lucky winner. I decided to extend the giveaway through the end of the day today, in case anyone gets excited about one of the products below and decides to enter. Have at it!

By the way, there are many great vendors I haven’t explicitly recognized. Product reviews aren’t a major focus of my blog, so I don’t want to overload you with them. Suffice it to say that all of the vendors were great people, selling great food, doing great work (besides that one brand that’s in the doghouse).

Most represented superfood

quinoa

Quinoa as far as the eye can see
Photo © Flickred! | Flickr

Neck and neck winners:
– CHIA, in Holy Crap cereal (which I will likely not be eating as cereal but am looking forward to baking into something) and in Chia Moxie peanut butter, plus several energy bars
– QUINOA, in many baked goods and bars, and the star of I Heart Keenwah, one of the most addictive supersnacks I’ve ever come across. I’m fond of the ginger peanut, but be careful: according to cofounder Ravi, this flavor is polarizing.

By the way, I just learned that the I Heart Keenwah founders all met at my alma mater, the University of Chicago! I had no idea there were so many quinoa lovers running around the quad. But it makes perfect sense that U of C alumni would be annoyed enough about the mispronunciation of their product’s name to spell it out phonetically. Because, English majors and business students alike, that’s just the way we are.

Also ran:
Spirulina
(a B12-rich algae) popped up in one Raw Revolution bar. The bar is an alarming shade of green but tasty nonetheless. (All their bars were good, similar to Lärabars but more interesting, in my opinion. Though I like Lära, sometimes the bars are a bit dry, which I didn’t notice here.)

Most simultaneously adorable and practical

A close runner-up in this category was me, wearing my Red Apple Audrey lipstick sample, but I figured I’m not really that practical, so I gave it to Gluten-Free Labels instead. Throw a couple of these babies on your colanders and spoons, and throw your masking tape and Sharpie in the trash. (Well, no, don’t do that; they’re still useful for other things, and that’s wasteful.)

Mark your territory in style, and support a really nice person, too—I’ve met the maker, Kelly, twice now, and she’s great.

Gluten-free beer most likely to please someone who never liked beer that much in the first place

New Planet. Some of their beers tasted more like cider, which is great because I prefer cider anyway. The ones that did taste like beer were more mild and accessible than some of the heavy hitters (Glutenberg, for example, which I could tell would be great if I liked hops). New Planet’s Belgian and amber ales got the thumbs up from this would-rather-drink-a-margarita girl.

Jeff of Basic Batters, with the prize-winning donut holes to his left

Jeff of Basic Batters, with his prize-winning donut holes

Best donut

I liked both Kinnikinnick’s and Basic Batters’ cinnamon-sugar donuts, for different reasons. Kinnikinnick’s was lighter and more traditionally donuty, but Basic Batters’ had pumpkin purée and pie spice mixed in, and it was so dense and autumnal, and man, am I ever ready for fall. They sold out before we could buy any, sadly. This family company is brand-brand-new and off to a killer start. Watch out, Dunkins.

Most generous vendor

This one is too tough. So many of the vendors I met were so outgoing and nice, and so (rightfully) proud of their wares, and so eager to share them with us. Most of them were gluten-free themselves, and I could see they recognized themselves in our shining faces as we swallowed that bite of brownie, baguette, or “rye” bread that tasted just the way it should.

Althea wins gluten-free coffee cake from The Cake Over bakery

She always was the lucky one in the family.

At the end of the day on Sunday—which, by the way, is the best time to be at this kind of event if you’re in it for the freebies—many of them gave away food they had brought with them, in portions much larger than a bite. For example, we lugged home two bulging bags of rolls from Local Oven (local not to NJ/NY but to Texas, though I believe they ship nationally. Try the onion rolls).

However, if I had to choose a winner, I’d give it to the Cake Over, a brand-new, not-even-quite-opened bakery in NJ, whose owners ran several giveaways over the course of the weekend. The prizes included a whole frosted champagne cake (very tasty—I had a sample), a two-foot-long tray of chocolate cake bites, and a chocolate-swirled coffee cake…which went to us! Yesssss.

Most hoping to see at the next Expo

No, you hipster, not a cronut. (Or a townie, either.) The other day, I had the sad revelation that peanut butter-stuffed pretzel bites exist…but GF ones don’t. Sure, you can dip your GF pretzels into peanut butter, but that’s not the same. I would love if this would come down the pipeline (ideally in a sunbutter-filled form, too, as the Gluten-Free Idiot suggested on Twitter, for the peanut-allergic), because no way am I attempting to make my own. I will for sure blog about them, though. Here’s looking at you, Snyder’s.

Best part of the experience (or, most likely to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside)

Colette Martin with her book, Learning to Bake Allergen-Free

Colette Martin with her book Learning to Bake Allergen-Free

Nabbing all the leftovers at the very end of the day on Sunday. Just kidding.

The best part by far was the people. I met several writers and bloggers who had previously existed for me only as a voice on a phone, emails, pixels, Tweets, and blog posts. (For example, I finally got to say hi in person to Colette Martin, whose book I helped edit at work and who is a real dynamo and super nice. Great book, too, if I may say so.)

Some of the vendors I’d met earlier this summer, but many of them (and many of their products) were totally new to me. All of them were smart, forthcoming, and passionate about their products.

Some attendees were parents of gluten-free kids, some were newly diagnosed themselves, some were old hands with years of experience to share. I loved getting to know them.

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again, maybe at the next Expo, and I can only hope that one day I’ll also be lucky enough to meet and talk to all of you, face to face, over a gluten-free treat or two.

Note that there was absolutely no “committee” or “voting” involved; all opinions are strictly my own. For these “reviews,” I was not compensated with anything other than free Expo tickets, huge amounts of free samples and a sugar high. Thank you, once again, to everyone who made this event possible, particularly the vendors and other bloggers who made it a fantastic weekend.

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