The Buzz on Gluten-free Beer

Ridofranz/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
Ridofranz/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

People take their beer very seriously, and often one of the hardest parts of a nutrition session is when I have to sit down newly gluten-free clients — especially college students and football fans — and say, “You know beer is made from barley, right?” Of course, wine, cider and hard alcohol are still allowed, but watching the game with a beer is a classic pairing that ranks up there with PB and J.

For the record, there have been gluten-free beers on the market for quite a few years, and they’re made from non-gluten containing grains like sorghum or rice. But there was a huge fuss and a lot of excitement when manufacturers announced that they had figured out how to make a beer with barley, and then go through a special process to remove the gluten fragments in order to make it safe for people with celiac disease or sensitivity. They even tested these special “gluten-removed” beers with state-of-the art testing equipment, and they came up clean.

Sounds spiffy, but here’s where it gets fuzzy, even if you haven’t had a few. The normal tests for gluten are generally not designed for fermented foods like beer. During fermentation, some of the strands of protein are broken down into their parts, also known as amino acids. The ultimate goal here is to figure out if the amino acid sequences that are toxic to people with celiac are still present in the beer. The essence of the debate is not if the tests give the answer of zero, but whether the tests are actually looking at something meaningful, and can accurately assess the presence of these harmful fragments.

The powers that be in the U.S. and Canada still have doubts on the safety of these gluten-removed beers. The U.S. head honchos in charge of booze, also known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, have required disclaimers such as: “Product fermented from grains containing gluten and [processed or treated or crafted] to remove gluten. The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten;” or “This product was distilled from grains containing gluten, which removed some or all of the gluten. The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.” They released a statement in February that specifically states the beers can’t currently be labeled gluten-free without the disclaimers, because it’s confusing and misleading to consumers.

So … I know many people see these beers and assume they’re safe. Until or unless we find out otherwise, I do encourage my gluten-free clients to steer clear of the “gluten-removed” beers, and instead choose other alcohol or beer from non-gluten containing grains. There are a bunch of truly, 100 percent gluten-free beers on the market, including Redbridge, Bard, New Grist, Green’s, New Planet and more.

And stay tuned! This is an ever-evolving topic and the guidelines will certainly change as new research is available. For a thorough and fantastic discussion, see Tricia Thompson’s write-up on gluten-free beers.

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Cheryl Harris
Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, is a nutritionist and mindfulness coach in Fairfax, VA. She runs a private practice focused on digestive & autoimmune health, Harris Whole Health. She blogs at Connect with her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.