Gluten Free Beer Vs. Gluten Reduced Beer
What’s the difference?
As you peruse the colorful shelves of your local market’s gluten free beer/cider section, you may notice that some bottles bare the fine print label “gluten reduced” or “crafted to remove gluten”. If you are someone who abstains from gluten for serious health reasons, you may want to consider the implications of these subtle words.
Beer that is 100% gluten free is brewed with 100% gluten free ingredients. However, the classification, as defined by the Food and Drug Administration, is also extended to:
“an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten” -www.fda.org
This means that products that were created from gluten ingredients can later have it removed to below 20 parts per million, and still be considered gluten free. In reality, these products are gluten reduced, not gluten free. So, how do you remove gluten from beer? It’s done by adding an enzyme in the brewing process, such as Clarity Ferm or Brewers Clarex™.
These enzymes are typically used to reduce chill haze in beer, but some brewers claim it “breaks up the gluten” rendering it harmless to those with Celiac Disease. (For the record, I disagree, and so do the studies! Read on to learn more about that.) You can read more about these enzymes here.
The Familiar Taste of Beer
There’s a reason that some of the best tasting gluten free beers on the market are actually gluten reduced. They’re more similar in taste to what we’re used to because they are brewed from regular beer ingredients such as wheat, barley, and rye.
Lucky for us, when the gluten is “removed”, the taste remains. However, for someone who reacts to even the slightest amount of gluten, it may be unwise to drink these types of beers. Those with Celiac Disease will always be safest consuming a beer which was brewed from gluten alternatives such as millet, buckwheat, sorghum, corn, or rice.
In my own experience,
I can tolerate 1 gluten reduced beer before the effects of the gluten are felt, but if I were to drink even one a day regularly, I would feel the consistent lull of contamination. Actually…I no longer drink gluten reduced beers. Here’s why.
My gluten free home brewing experience would argue that brewing 100% gluten free isn’t as hard or as scary as it might sound. Some of the best GF beers I’ve ever had have been the ones brewed as a shot-in-the-dark experiment in my very own kitchen. If I had the time to stock my fridge that way all the time…I would. So why do we even have gluten reduced beers? Good question.
Why Do We Have Gluten Reduced Beers?
Have you noticed how expensive gluten free malts are? They are many times the price per pound of barley which makes brewing gluten free beer on a commercial scale very challenging, financially speaking. For a dedicated gluten free brewery to remain competitive in the market, they must do a dance with extremely tight profit margins.
This can be a huge barrier to market entry, especially when combined with the high overhead brewers often experience in cities and central locations. To a brewer worried about cost, it may seem a whole lot easier to brew with the “cheap stuff” to create a product that tastes familiar to your customers. (e.g. beer brewed with barley malt)
Aside from the cost of ingredients, imagine the work involved with sanitizing equipment (or investing in gluten free dedicated equipment) when brewing a gluten free beer. It’s a whole lot easier to brew normally and “remove” the gluten after the fact, than to create a gluten free product from scratch. Unfortunately I believe this is another reason breweries opt for the gluten reduced route.
Then there’s market misinformation to consider too. Gluten reduced beer brewers use an ELISA test to determine the gluten levels of their finished product. Unfortunately, these tests have not proven accurate for hydrolyzed or fermented products, such as soy sauce and beer. This leads us to question whether we can actually trust those tests. There are even better tests out there, but they aren’t used by big-name gluten reduced beer brands, like Omission and Daura.
There have also been studies done to measure a Celiac’s antibody response to gluten reduced beers, and whether the current testing method is useful in the safety assessment of those beers. A study done by the Gluten Intolerance Group at the University of Chicago’s Celiac Research Center concluded that zero test subjects had an antibody response to gluten free beer, but a percentage of them did react to gluten reduced beer, suggesting that gluten reduced beers are not safe for all Celiacs. It also brings into question the validity of the ELISA test for this purpose.
The Gluten Free Market Continues To Evolve
Luckily, the market has changed a lot since I first created this blog. Gluten free breweries are popping up all over the place and the distribution situation is slowly (and painfully) improving. I don’t drink gluten reduced beer anymore because I don’t have to. Lately I’ve chosen to support the breweries that have our backs in the gluten free department–by using 100% gluten free ingredients in their beer.
Industry leaders (such as Ground Breaker, Ghostfish, Burning Brothers, Holidaily, Aurochs, etc…) have clearly proven to us that gluten-free doesn’t automatically mean taste-free or body-free. This used to feel like the case…but not anymore. Check out this article for a list of 100% dedicated gluten free breweries in the Unites States. If you’re in the U.K. this beer list will help you identify the difference between gluten free and gluten reduced beers.
Keep in mind too, some Celiacs are asymptomatic and don’t show external signs of gluten damage. This doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering internally though. Those with Celiac Disease have a wide range of reactions and at different levels. Regardless of how extreme your external symptoms are, consider this:
“Studies have proven that every person with celiac disease has a different threshold for how much gluten he or she can tolerate before activating the disease, regardless of symptoms. For some that threshold is as little as 10 mg of gluten per day; others can tolerate up to 100 mg. In either case…we are talking about a very small amount: the equivalent of an 1/8 of a teaspoon of flour or less. There are about 600 mg of flour in 1/8 of a teaspoon, and that contains about 80 mg of gluten. Thus, 10 mg of gluten is just 1/64 of a teaspoon. In any case, zero consumption, or as close to zero as possible, is the best policy.” – The Celiac Disease Center, University of Chicago
Listen To Your Body, Follow Your Instincts
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to define your own standards for your gluten free beer consumption. If you are simply sensitive to large quantities of gluten, perhaps gluten reduced is a fine option for you. However if you’re like me, you’ll be making a safer bet by choosing truly gluten free beer.
Not all gluten sensitivity symptoms are obvious. You could be doing damage internally even if you think you’re getting away with it on the outside. MY ADVICE: Educate yourself about the products you consume and always listen to your body carefully when testing gluten reduced beverages.
This could also be seen as a vote with your dollar opportunity. There’s a lot of breweries out there brewing gluten free beer using 100% gluten free ingredients. I realize that distribution and access are major issues, but if you do have access, I encourage you to support those breweries. They have a fun–but tough job. Let’s have their back, because they have ours.
Gluten Intolerance Group Study: The Celiac Patient Antibody Response to Conventional and Gluten-Removed Beer
The Celiac Disease Center, University of Chicago: How do you know a food is really gluten free? Food Labeling & Gluten Free Certified Foods
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Gluten Free Labeling Of Foods