Gluten reduced beer is brewed with water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Specialized enzymes used widely in the brewing industry are added to break down or hydrolyze the proteins in barley, including the gluten protein "hordein," that causes adverse reactions in people with celiac disease.
The malting of barley, fermentation of the mash (water and malted barley) by yeast and the process of adding specialized enzymes to beer all act to hydrolyze the large protein molecules in barley to smaller proteins called peptides.
Brewers have learned that when specialized enzymes are added during the brewing process, when tested for gluten, the finished beer contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. Gluten reduced beer is independently tested by labs using standardized, FDA / Codex Alimentarius Commission approved R5 ELISA test methods used to detect gluten in food.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Gluten Free Works only products considers that are not derived from, or contaminated with, wheat, barley, rye or oats to be truly gluten-free and therefore safe for people with gluten sensitivity and/or celiac disease.]
Who Makes Gluten Reduced Beer?
Breweries that are marketing gluten reduced beer include Estrella Damm / Daura (Spain), Widmer Brothers Brewing / Omission Beer, (Oregon) and Two Brothers Brewing Company / Prairie Path Beer (Illinois).
Estrella Damm's Daura gluten reduced beer has won multiple international awards. Because Daura is produced in Europe, gluten-free labeling standards have been established through the Codex Alimentarius Commission. A product may be labeled gluten-free if approved ELISA analysis is used to test the product and the test results show that the product contains less than 20 ppm gluten.
According to Estrella Damm, "Estrella Damm Daura is the result of a long collaborative research process between Damm and the CSIC (National Scientific Research Council) gluten unit, using the most advanced technology. It is the first beer in Spain to guarantee a gluten content below 3 ppm (products with a gluten content below 20 ppm are suitable for people with coeliac disease)."
Omission Beer brews a gluten reduced lager and a pale ale, which have also won multiple international awards in the gluten-free beer category. And Omission has the unique distinction of having as its' CEO a person diagnosed with celiac disease. According to their website, "Each batch of Omission Pale Ale and Omission Lager is tested by an independent lab using the R5 Competitive ELISA for gluten content. Although there is scientific evidence supporting this testing, the evidence is not conclusive. Omission beer may contain gluten."
Each bottle of Omission Beer bears a date stamp which identifies that batch of beer. Consumers can go to the Omission Beer website and see the independent R5 ELISA test results for that batch.
Two Brothers Brewing Company, makers of gluten reduced Prairie Path Golden Ale state on their website that "An independent analytical lab has tested the gluten content of Prairie Path Golden Ale. The new FDA standards state that any product that contains barley, but can be proven to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, can state that the product has been "Crafted to Remove Gluten. Prairie Path Golden Ale is proven to contain less than 5 ppm, well below the currently proposed standard."
How is Gluten Reduced Beer Tested?
Gluten reduced breweries test each batch of their beer at independent labs using the Codex Alimentarius Commission /FDA approved R5 Competitive ELISA assay.
Why Can't Gluten Reduced Beer Be Labeled Gluten-Free in the United States?
Because the FDA hasn't established gluten-free labeling standards. Until the agency does, maybe this year (?) any food or beverage that contains wheat, barley or rye cannot be labeled gluten-free, even if ELISA testing finds less than 20 ppm gluten in the product. It is widely thought that the FDA will eventually conform with Codex Alimentarius Commission guidelines for gluten-free labeling.
In May of 2012 the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued a ruling on how gluten reduced beers made with malted barley can be labeled. "TTB will not allow products made from ingredients that contain gluten to be labeled as “gluten-free.” And, "because there are currently no scientifically valid testing methods available to accurately measure the gluten content of fermented products, we will only allow these products to be labeled with a statement that they were processed to remove gluten but that the product may still contain gluten."
In Europe and in Canada foods and beverages that are tested via R5 ELISA assays, and contain less than 20 ppm gluten, even if they are manufactured with malted barley, can be labeled gluten-free.
How is Gluten-Free Beer Different than Gluten Reduced Beer?
Gluten-free beer is not beer in the true definition of beer. It's brewed with one or multiple gluten-free grains, including sorghum, millet, buckwheat or rice and contains zero barley, wheat or rye. In the United States, the FDA will not allow any product or beverage made with wheat, barley or rye to be labeled "gluten-free."
Is Gluten Reduced Beer Safe for People with Celiac Disease?
Much depends on individual biochemistry. Some celiacs react to the slightest exposure to gluten proteins in wheat, barley and rye. It is possible that gluten reduced beers are not safe for all celiacs. It's also possible that for many people with celiac disease, drinking R5 ELISA tested gluten reduced beer won't harm them.
Gluten puts celiacs at risk for developing nutritional deficiencies, malnutrition and even lymphoma so it would be great to have a definitive answer to this question. Unfortunately we really don't.
Biochemist Peter Olins, Ph.D., co-author of the Ultimate Gluten-Free website has concerns about the R5 ELISA test used to analyze the gluten content of beer. He believes that "The R5 antibody does not detect all the peptides that are potentially toxic, (that) the peptides used to calibrate the assay are quite different from the ones created during beer-making and (that) the assay does not actually measure whether the remaining peptides in beer can still provoke an immune reaction in celiacs."
University of California Professor Emeritus of Brewing Science Michael Lewis writes in Celiac Disease, Beer and Brewing that "brewers must be able to demonstrate without equivocation that they have succeeded in producing a gluten-free product. This can best be done if the nature of the offending peptide is known and reliable methods for measuring it are developed."
It appears some celiacs are enjoying the pleasures of drinking gluten reduced beer. Still others are wary and unconvinced that gluten reduced beer is safe.
Celiac disease is complex. Future studies, the development of new testing methods for hydrolyzed gluten proteins and an industry working to produce safe, award-winning beer for the gluten-free market will all help to answer this question.
What do you think? Should beer made from barley be considered gluten-free, even if it falls below 20 parts per million? Comment below!
Author Information: Teri Gruss, MS About.com Guide to Gluten-Free Cooking Teri was diagnosed with gluten intolerance after decades of symptoms that culminated in malabsorption syndrome. Teri has written numerous health and nutrition articles for the popular website naturalnews.com and was a founding member and moderator of nutritioncircle.org, a nutrition forum for healthcare professionals and students. She is a member of the American Dietetic Association and supports the non-profit organization Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) of North America as a member. Email Teri Gruss, MS here.