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  • Megan Tichy Ph.D.
    Megan Tichy Ph.D.

    Distilled Spirits (Grain Alcohols) and Vinegar: Are they Gluten-Free?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    What is Gluten?

    Gluten is a huge molecule held together by smaller molecules linked together called amino acids. A very tiny part of the gluten molecule can initiate a response. If each amino acid that makes up gluten is represented as a single letter that very tiny part would be: SGQGSFQPSQQ. There are other sequences of amino acids that cause a reaction in gluten sensitive individuals, but the point is, as tiny as this fragment is with respect to the entire gluten protein, it is still HUGE with respect to the size of ethanol (the stuff you are drinking).

    What is Alcohol?

    The alcohol you drink is ethanol. Ethanol is smaller than the size of the smallest amino acid in the smallest fragment of gluten that has been shown to initiate an autoimmune reaction. More specifically, ethanol is about 10 atomic mass units smaller than just the G in the sequence shown above.

    What are Amino Acids?

    The G is glycine, and by the way, each of these amino acids (represented by letters) by themselves is safe, and sold at most health food stores. For example Q = glutamine (yes, “L-glutamine,” the same amino acid mentioned in a recent post and used to heal intestinal damage). If the protein is viewed as beads on a string, then one of those beads might be good for you, but certain sequences strung together can initiate an allergic reaction of many types from acute peanut allergy to less-than-obvious gluten sensitivity.

    What is Distillation?

    When a distillation is performed, pure ethanol is separated away from all of the other “stuff” that forms as a result of fermentation. This is because ethanol is volatile (meaning it becomes a gas in the distillation process). Imagine a vat of fermentation products, you heat it, and only the volatile molecules like ethanol enter a tube attached to the vat. This tube is not just any tube - it is a curved condensation tube! Here is what it does: While the heated gas form of ethanol floats into it (because that is what gases do), the molecules are cooled and condense back into a liquid, and fall into a new sparkling clean vessel containing the stuff that intoxicates you and any other volatiles. So the fancier distillation columns that are actually used industrially also purify the ethanol away from other volatiles. Gluten does not stand a chance of “crossing over” because it is not volatile.

    Here is a simplified analogy. Let's say you put some sand in the bottom of your tea kettle. If you take the spout off your tea kettle, and attach a condensing tube to the opening (a curved tube would be the simplest type of condensing tube but there are many elaborate types), you could distill your water away from the sand. The condensing tube would be curved so as to open into a new clean pot. Let us pretend that the sand is gluten and the water is ethanol. When you heat to the boiling point, the liquid becomes gas so it travels into the condenser, cools and becomes liquid, then falls into the clean pot.

    Now having read that, is there any way that the new clean pot would contain any sand? No, and distilled alcohol (ethanol) does not contain any gluten. Remember, gluten is not volatile. Another non-volatile compound is table salt. So you could perform a distillation at home, with salt water. Has anyone ever inadvertently done this? Boiled a pot of salt water, perhaps to make some Tinkyada pasta, and walked away to do something else. You came back to find your pot almost empty with white crusty stuff (salt) all inside the pot.

    So the gluten is left behind in a distillation process. If malt is added to the distilled product it will be disclosed on the ingredients label.

    What is Vinegar?

    Vinegar is formed by fermentation in a similar way that ethanol is formed by fermentation. The process is to take ethanol and ferment it with bacteria. Later, there is a filtration to remove the bacteria. Rarely, vinegar is fermented from wheat-based alcohol. “Distilled vinegar,” gets its name from the fact that it was fermented from distilled alcohol.

    Why is Vinegar Still Questioned?

    The answer could be, perhaps, because so many people report a reaction to it and vinegar-based products. The never-ending fear is that cross-contamination during the fermentation process is leading to barely detectable amounts of gluten in the finished product (by barely detectable, I mean in terms of commercially available tests). Since the vinegar is rarely distilled post fermentation from the ethanol, the “messy” nature of the second fermentation step could pose a problem, especially for highly sensitive individuals. If the alcohol gets all used up by the bacteria, the bacteria go on to form carbon dioxide and water from the vinegar. So alcohol is periodically added in the fermentation process. Conceivably, one “shortcut” would be to just add beer at this juncture. Adding beer or some other form of cheap malted alcohol would keep the culture alive, and increase the “quality” and yield of the vinegar. Another fear is that the bacterial “mother” as it is called, contains trace gluten through cross-contamination. Claims that these practices actually take place are unsubstantiated by evidence.

    Why are Distilled Spirits Still Questioned?

    That is a good question, I do not know.

    Take a Short Quiz on this Topic:

    1. You bought mustard and pickles at the grocery store. These products contain “distilled vinegar” according to the ingredients labels, and the label does NOT say “contains: wheat.” Are the mustard and pickles gluten-free?
    2. Rum, gin, whiskey, and vodka are distilled beverages. If they are not flavored with something that contains wheat (would be declared on the label), rye, or barley (usually in the form of “malt”), are they gluten-free? 
    3. What is wrong with the following statements (they have all been cut and pasted from various blogs and forums on the topic of celiac disease)?a. “Most alcohols are distilled in such a way that any wheat gluten is no longer present.”b. “Even trace amounts of gluten that make it past the filter system can be harmful.”c. “It seems improbable to me, too, that gliadin could survive the distillation process.”

    Answers:
    1. Yes, unless you have reason to believe otherwise, in which case you should simply avoid them.
    2. Yes.
    3. 3a. All alcohols, if distilled, have been removed from any type of gluten.
      3b. Distillation is nothing like a filtration. We are not separating small from large, there is no filter. Filtration would be like how your coffee pot separates water from the coffee grains. A tear in the filter would result in a big problem, right? Filtration is a separation based on size, distillation is a separation based on volatility.
      3c. Do we care whether gliadin (a name given to part of wheat gluten) “survives” the process or not? No, because it has been left behind to stew in its own juices in the distillation pot. Your stuff (the ethanol) has floated away, and entered a new, clean pot. Some people have this idea that we heat the fermented mixture to smithereens and it somehow decomposes the molecules of gluten. Clearly, such a process would be ineffective or else we could simply “cook,” “roast,” “fry,” or “burn” the gluten out of our foods, and we know that we cannot do that.

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    As a scientist I would have also assumed that distillation removes gluten from vinegar and alcohol. However my gut feeling is that it does not (I am highly sensitive to gluten and have a highly controlled diet). I have puzzled over this and conclude that it is possible for a distilled product derived from wheat to contain trace gluten for the following reasons

    1. the distillation process is not 100% efficient. Boiling a liquid causes it to vaporize, however it also causes the formation of aerosols (tiny droplets of liquid). These aerosols have the potential to carry gluten into the distilled product. Anyone who has worked in a laboratory will known it is standard practice to distill water twice because one round of distillation does not make water absolutely pure.

    2. Gluten has unusual solubility, being insoluble in water and highly soluble in alcohol. I believe it is also highly soluble in acid. Alcohol and vinegar are prepared from the starch fraction of wheat, which is known to contain residual gluten. This gluten probably concentrates in alcohol and vinegar because they render it highly soluble.

    The only way to demonstrate that vinegar and alcohol derived from wheat are safe for celiac disease patients is to perform a clinical trial which includes patients of all degrees of sensitivity. This has never been done and is logistically daunting.

    Gluten detection methods have shortcomings which mean they cannot, on their own, be used to declare a food safe (I have written a peer-reviewed journal article on this subject Lester DR (2008) Gluten measurement and its relationship to food toxicity for celiac disease patients. Plant Methods. 2008 Oct 28;4:26).

    My impression is that there is sufficient anecdotal evidence from forums within celiac disease support groups to raise doubt about alcohol and vinegar.

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    As a scientist I would have also assumed that distillation removes gluten from vinegar and alcohol. However my gut feeling is that it does not (I am highly sensitive to gluten and have a highly controlled diet). I have puzzled over this and conclude that it is possible for a distilled product derived from wheat to contain trace gluten for the following reasons

    1. the distillation process is not 100% efficient. Boiling a liquid causes it to vaporize, however it also causes the formation of aerosols (tiny droplets of liquid). These aerosols have the potential to carry gluten into the distilled product. Anyone who has worked in a laboratory will known it is standard practice to distill water twice because one round of distillation does not make water absolutely pure.

    2. Gluten has unusual solubility, being insoluble in water and highly soluble in alcohol. I believe it is also highly soluble in acid. Alcohol and vinegar are prepared from the starch fraction of wheat, which is known to contain residual gluten. This gluten probably concentrates in alcohol and vinegar because they render it highly soluble.

    The only way to demonstrate that vinegar and alcohol derived from wheat are safe for celiac disease patients is to perform a clinical trial which includes patients of all degrees of sensitivity. This has never been done and is logistically daunting.

    Gluten detection methods have shortcomings which mean they cannot, on their own, be used to declare a food safe (I have written a peer-reviewed journal article on this subject Lester DR (2008) Gluten measurement and its relationship to food toxicity for celiac disease patients. Plant Methods. 2008 Oct 28;4:26).

    My impression is that there is sufficient anecdotal evidence from forums within celiac disease support groups to raise doubt about alcohol and vinegar.

    I, like many of the people who have responded to this article, react to distilled alcohols. So, while I find this article helpful to some extent, I actually found Diane's answer more relevant to what my gut tells me. Thanks Diane!

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    As a scientist I would have also assumed that distillation removes gluten from vinegar and alcohol. However my gut feeling is that it does not (I am highly sensitive to gluten and have a highly controlled diet). I have puzzled over this and conclude that it is possible for a distilled product derived from wheat to contain trace gluten for the following reasons

    1. the distillation process is not 100% efficient. Boiling a liquid causes it to vaporize, however it also causes the formation of aerosols (tiny droplets of liquid). These aerosols have the potential to carry gluten into the distilled product. Anyone who has worked in a laboratory will known it is standard practice to distill water twice because one round of distillation does not make water absolutely pure.

    2. Gluten has unusual solubility, being insoluble in water and highly soluble in alcohol. I believe it is also highly soluble in acid. Alcohol and vinegar are prepared from the starch fraction of wheat, which is known to contain residual gluten. This gluten probably concentrates in alcohol and vinegar because they render it highly soluble.

    The only way to demonstrate that vinegar and alcohol derived from wheat are safe for celiac disease patients is to perform a clinical trial which includes patients of all degrees of sensitivity. This has never been done and is logistically daunting.

    Gluten detection methods have shortcomings which mean they cannot, on their own, be used to declare a food safe (I have written a peer-reviewed journal article on this subject Lester DR (2008) Gluten measurement and its relationship to food toxicity for celiac disease patients. Plant Methods. 2008 Oct 28;4:26).

    My impression is that there is sufficient anecdotal evidence from forums within celiac disease support groups to raise doubt about alcohol and vinegar.

    From my own experience, Russian (pure) potato vodka, if you can still find it, and just about any of the rums are the only alcohols that I can tolerate (I use to buy scotch by the case). Since I developed Celiac, and I've tested it several times, I get a reaction from scotch, beer and whiskey. During the distillation process there are contaminants the bootleggers back home (the Blue Ridges) called fusel oils. These distill off at various temperatures both below and above that alcohol. They are what give various liquors and whiskeys their distinct (i.e., both good and bad) taste. Usually the ones that distill off at lower temperatures are beneficial, those a higher temperatures give the whiskey a solvent like taste. At least in my case, something in the low temp oils gives me the same reaction that I get from gluten.

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    I think the problem with white distilled vinegar is that it turns to a poison in the body. For that reason, we avoid all white distilled vinegar except to clean with. Apple cider vinegar is NOT the same so that is probably why there isn't a problem with that one.

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    Susie and Sarah- agreed.

     

    I completely understand the process of distillation. I've done it myself many times in a lab. What I don't understand is how I have reacted time after time after time to products that I find out later contained distilled vinegar or alcohol that is wheat-derived.

     

    I appreciate this article's clear explanations. I just can't seem to make the connection between the logical science and my reality.

    Susie, Sarah, Elle -

     

    Same boat here guys, same boat. What is odd is, I can tolerate trace amounts of gluten in other products, but not alcohol. There is a very definitive outcome that results from drinking wheat based boozes, and it is unmistakably celiac (though I wish I could chalk it up to something else I ate, as I do enjoy a cocktail).

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    Guest Stacey Zappacosta

    Posted

    Many of you celiac's that react to vinegar are probably sensitive to yeast and fermented products. Celiac, gluten intolerance and yeast allergies are usually connected because of "leaky gut".

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    I appreciate Diane explaining the distillation process, because from the various blogs and forums I read, it seems that there is a lot of confusion about the process, and how scientifically it makes it impossible for gluten molecules to somehow make it through distillation.

     

    However, I was very disappointed in one aspect. Saying that we have nothing to fear from distilled products is, I feel, doing celiac's a disfavor, because it presumes two things that I don't believe are true: people never make mistakes, and all factories are perfect.

     

    If a factory is using products with gluten, then the possibility of contamination after distillation exists. It may not be a high probability of contamination if proper safety standards are used, but...can we guarantee that every facility that is distilling alcohol is concerned about contamination afterward? I don't believe we can - in fact, based on the the history of food production, I'd say the odds are in favor of some facilities having poorer standards and higher chances of contaminating their products post-distillation.

     

    So for those who are sensitive like me, that may mean that 1 out of 4 times I'll be fine with an alcohol distilled from wheat, and one time I'll react because I get a contaminated batch.

     

    It's disheartening to have people's reports of reactions dismissed out of hand, just as so many of us had our celiac symptoms dismissed in the first place. And I feel that we fail to truly examine the problem if we look at it only in terms of a process in theory rather than looking at how the processing works in the real world.

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    As a scientist I would have also assumed that distillation removes gluten from vinegar and alcohol. However my gut feeling is that it does not (I am highly sensitive to gluten and have a highly controlled diet). I have puzzled over this and conclude that it is possible for a distilled product derived from wheat to contain trace gluten for the following reasons

    1. the distillation process is not 100% efficient. Boiling a liquid causes it to vaporize, however it also causes the formation of aerosols (tiny droplets of liquid). These aerosols have the potential to carry gluten into the distilled product. Anyone who has worked in a laboratory will known it is standard practice to distill water twice because one round of distillation does not make water absolutely pure.

    2. Gluten has unusual solubility, being insoluble in water and highly soluble in alcohol. I believe it is also highly soluble in acid. Alcohol and vinegar are prepared from the starch fraction of wheat, which is known to contain residual gluten. This gluten probably concentrates in alcohol and vinegar because they render it highly soluble.

    The only way to demonstrate that vinegar and alcohol derived from wheat are safe for celiac disease patients is to perform a clinical trial which includes patients of all degrees of sensitivity. This has never been done and is logistically daunting.

    Gluten detection methods have shortcomings which mean they cannot, on their own, be used to declare a food safe (I have written a peer-reviewed journal article on this subject Lester DR (2008) Gluten measurement and its relationship to food toxicity for celiac disease patients. Plant Methods. 2008 Oct 28;4:26).

    My impression is that there is sufficient anecdotal evidence from forums within celiac disease support groups to raise doubt about alcohol and vinegar.

    Diane, you just described what I suspect is the primary reason why distilled spirits have gotten this inaccurate rap for gluten content: Gluten solubility.

     

    The majority of these anecdotal stories involve people who were *not* drinking at home, of drinks they'd prepared themselves. It's folks who are out, either at a party, a bar, a restaurant, etc.

     

    You then point out that gluten is highly soluble in alcohol, which means that if you've been exposed to contamination, the alcohol is going to ensure that you absorb that contamination and disseminate it throughout your system. Further, as we're all well aware, *any* time you eat or drink away from your own home, you are at risk for exposure, because non-celiacs simply don't understand how we're affected. Every single one of us has been poisoned by cross-contamination, most of us multiple times. Blaming the alcohol for facilitating the exposure is like blaming the full moon for an uptick in emergency room visits simply because any uptick which occurs during a full moon gets noted, while any uptick on any other night is simply ignored for what it is: Random chance . It's caused by selective observation, not an underlying truth. I'm sure plenty of celiacs have had reactions after drinking tequila or other non-grain-sourced liquors and either correctly assumed they were poisoned by some other contamination, or incorrectly assumed that the liquor must've had some grain portion. (Mexican distillers find sugar a much cheaper starting point than imported wheat, and even cheap tequila is highly unlikely to have been borne of any gluten-containing source). Adulterated spirits, like gin, are certainly suspect. I'm completely puzzled by mention of caramel colorings or flavorings as a source of gluten -- both are made from carbohydrates, not proteins. Why would you make them from a starchy source that would require enzymatic action to convert it into a sugar prior to the caramelization process? To me, the moral of all these anecdotal stories is simple: Don't drink when you're away from home unless you're eating food which is virtually impossible to cross-contaminate. I don't know much about how industrial tests for gluten work, but I would be very surprised if well-made whiskies or vodkas were found to contain gluten, assuming those tests ever become accurate or sensitive enough to give a reliable result. Anecdotal evidence is always a dangerous thing to rely on. It's why we can't turn on our ipods on an airplane unless it's at cruising altitude, why many gas stations have warning signs telling you that using a cell phone while pumping gas could cause an explosion, and why many parents insist on refusing to vaccinate their children. If we're to rely on anecdotal evidence, can we at least rely on *good* anecdotal evidence? Let's have some of our brave celiac brethren enlist the aid of their spouses, and engage in blind booze exposures at home, where contamination can be controlled. Some nights mix the drinks with a "suspect" alcohol, like scotch. Other nights, use a "safe" alcohol, like potato vodka. If you get several reactions to the suspect, but none to the safe, you'll have an anecdote we can sink our teeth into. Otherwise, I suspect these reports prove what we already know: The outside world is littered heavily with gluten, and we eat in public (sadly) often at our own risk.

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    I am new to this from a personal standpoint. I have just in the last few months started exhibiting symptoms that made me think there is a real problem, but my dad was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a positive DQ. He doesn't remember which one. My daughter, however, had positive allergy tests for multiple food allergies at the age of 2, including wheat, for which she has recently at the age of 6 tested negative. Fortunately??? I think she still has an intolerance after the poor child has been gorging on all the food she wasn't allowed before.

     

    I like the article. Very informative. Diane Lester's post is excellent for filling in any scientific gaps, and Amen to T.H. The real world is where we are, not in the laboratory.

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  • About Me

    Megan Tichy, Ph.D. holds a doctorate in Chemistry from Texas A&M University. She, her husband (Shane), and son (Nathan) moved to the Bay area from Texas in 2009. Megan was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2003. As a support group leader in Bryan, TX she began many fruitful efforts in the realm of educating non-scientists about the science behind celiac disease. In 2008 she gave a talk at the annual GlG conference entitled, Making Sense of Science." She is currently seeking a Masters in Teaching.

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