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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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    I think the author makes perfectly scientific points, and I agree with them. I am not a celiac, however my fiance is. I have noticed two things:

    1. If he drinks soon after a minor contamination he gets ill. I mean really ill. In my estimation, it is not that the booze contains gluten, but the damaging of an already sensitive system that causes the horrible following reaction.

    2. Sometimes when people drink they lose the total control that they would ordinarily retain. I have heard my fiance, after a couple of drinks relax the standards he usually carries on food because he is drunk. Maybe this is a culprit.

    I also have one more comment to add about the alcohol. As was already noted, very few liquors that are sold contain pure ethanol. It would kill you. Most of them are diluted and flavored after the fact. I would guess from the color of many alcohols that they use caramel coloring (barley) and maltodextrin (malt=bad) and any number of "natural flavorings" that they are not necessarily required to itemize. My fiance stays away from anything colored (whiskey, scotch, bourbon, gold tequila) or flavored (gin, flavored vodkas etc.). Stick to things that are fermented directly from gluten free foods, (i.e. sake, wine, silver tequila). Good luck!

    maltodextrin is corn

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    Clearly, more than just ethanol makes it through the distillation process, otherwise all distilled alcohols would just be Everclear--and indistinguishable from one another in taste or appearance. I think the fear was/is that, because more than Ethanol makes it through, could gluten be one of the "other" things that gets carried along?

    I've had reactions to whiskey and other malt ingredient drinks, but vodka for example made with 100% potatoes and rum doesn't bother me. I have to agree with you thinking more than just ethanol makes it through the distillation process, my body tells me so.

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    Guest Joseph kamusiime

    Posted

    Am also of the opinion that the distillation process does not totally remove gluten. My first reaction had to do with beers, I switched to spirits but the same reactions ve reoccurred. However, I think gluten content in spirits is smaller compared to the beers.

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    I've had reactions to whiskey and other malt ingredient drinks, but vodka for example made with 100% potatoes and rum doesn't bother me. I have to agree with you thinking more than just ethanol makes it through the distillation process, my body tells me so.

    Jay, I am with you. I am highly sensitive to distilled vinegar and grain alcohols. I take issue with the FDA, whose guidelines state that a company can label their food/beverage products as gluten free as long as their is less than 20 parts per million of gluten present in the finished (distilled) product. This is misleading and could be damaging the guts of thousands of celiacs like us.

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    A few other things came to mind after reading the comments. 1) Do be careful of the alcohol you ingest. With distilled spirits, stick to potato vodka like Monopolowa or Chopin. If you are truly sensitive, like myself, avoid mixers with caramel coloring, like cola products. 2.) Do not believe all "gluten free" claims. Three Olives vodka, a product of Proximo Spirits lists their vodkas as Gluten Free & Wheat Free on their website. When contacted, I found that they are in fact distilled from wheat. Same with salad dressings and condiments. Just because the label says "gluten free" doesn't mean it is safe for many of us if the product contains distilled vinegar. 3.) We with Celiac Disease must still keep fighting for awareness about the dangers of gluten. The FDA is against us if they continue to allow inaccurate product labeling. Even this website, dedicated to our health (presumably) has posted an article that basically dismisses our claims that distillation does not render alcohol and vinegars safe for us (100% gluten free.)

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    I am also a very sensitive celiac. I rarely drink, because I no longer desire the taste (spilled out many drinks in the past). But even when I want to have one to be "social" or celebrate a special occasion, I double check & make sure to "go over" the distillation process & ingredients- just not worth getting sick over, from carelessness. This may sound weird but, I have noticed that top shelf alcohol seems to make a difference w me. I even enjoy the taste when all is well! I mix with cranberry or fruit juices & still keep it "very" limited though, better safe than sorry. I just happened to look at a list of gluten free beers today, from the "Gluten Free Beer Festival of 2006". Get a craving once in a great while, may try one of them in the future.

    Janie: I don't drink as much either cause I find my self sensitive to it. We're like you Sarah, trace amounts in food don't bother us. Amaretto is gluten free and when mixed with sour mix is very tasty (read label on sour mix some have wheat). I had my husband make me ketchup to stay away from vinegar. As I too thought it would hurt me. but mayo and mustard also have vinegar. this article has helped me but still confused on some things.

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    I was diagnosed with celiac in 1954 before it was associated with gluten intolerance. So I have a very long history of dealing with this life variance.

    I guess the science is ok. But my reality is I have to be very careful of white vinegars. They will clear my intestinal track within 3 hours. As will a host of other things, especially mushrooms. Having celiac can certainly be well managed with a gluten free diet. But there are usually other food sensitivities that go along with it.

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    I gave a poor rating because I believe the information is incorrect or misleading. I've chosen not to be tested for celiac disease. However, I have reactions to gluten and wheat's closest relatives that range for annoying to violent. Some of the very earliest reactions were to beer. Now, wheat beer is increasingly prevalent on the but I react to ALL beers. My friend who has been diagnosed celiac also reacts to beer. One bottle leads to misery. TG for Woodchuck Cider. It's delicious.

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    What's interesting is how every other week (in the 13 years I've tended bar I get asked which spirits are gluten free. Never have I been asked about or heard of any nut allergy sufferers reacting to gin.

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    maltodextrin is corn

    Correction, most maltodextrin is corn. Most maltodextrin in the United States is made from corn. However, in Europe, it is made mostly from wheat. So, watch your product labels to see where the food is from. If it's from Europe, the maltodextrin is most likely made from wheat.

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    All grains contain gluten! Please do your research as it may be more than just wheat gluten causing your symptoms. Corn is a huge culprit and can cause similar symptoms (if not worse) than wheat. You can find out more on Dr. Osborne's website Towne Center Wellness Clinic. It has been life-changing for our family and extended family.

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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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