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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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    Guest A guy from Idaho

    Posted

    Sorry, it's a bit of a myth that potatoes are used for vodka. Modern vodka uses grain. "Absolut Vodka, is made solely from grain." Take a look for yourself.

    There are plenty of modern vodkas made strictly from potatoes. (Type potato vodka into your fancy Google machine.)

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    There are plenty of modern vodkas made strictly from potatoes. (Type potato vodka into your fancy Google machine.)

    Tito's is an excellent gluten-free vodka if anyone is looking. I've never had a reaction to it.

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    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.

    Tammie, the FDA doesn't really disagree with you. They have an article somewhere (sorry can't find it at short notice) that discusses the lowest levels of ppm needed for the most sensitive celiacs. That article reviews the literature and concludes that some celiacs are so sensitive that the typical 20ppm (which correlates to about 50mg per day) is not low enough to prevent those sensitive celiacs from reacting. They note that some Celiacs react below 10mg per day. Health Canada has a similar review on their website. Interestingly enough, another study discusses those celiacs (again, can't find on short notice) and suggests that if those celiacs could go for 6 months with ZERO gluten, their sensitivity to would return to the normal celiac sensitivity by which they could tolerate gluten in amounts below 50mg. Anyway, my point being that 20ppm is not held out as 100% safe - just safe for a huge proportion of celiacs. Unfortunate, but true. In Australia their requirement for gluten free requires that it be zero according to any commercially available test...still not technically zero, but as close as we can knowingly get.

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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.

    Quantity or volume of booze matters to. Keep the temp low to get good stuff

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    Sorry, it's a bit of a myth that potatoes are used for vodka. Modern vodka uses grain. "Absolut Vodka, is made solely from grain." Take a look for yourself.

    Chopin vodka is potato based vodka.

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    Justin, the author never claimed that no other substances weren't volatile. She merely discussed ethanol and gluten for simplification. Obviously, water is volatile and would make it through distillation along with the ethanol. This is why all distillation wouldn't result in Everclear. If gluten is present in a distilled alcohol, I would suspect contamination (whether intentional or unintentional) after the distillation process.

    Eight years later but I have to comment.. yes water is volatile but it transforms into a gas at 212 degrees F. Ethanol becomes a gas at 173 degrees F... The result for all practical purposes is pure alcohol. Gluten is not a volatile substance and cannot be carried or transferred into the distillate. Most premium spirits are distilled more than once. Most medicinal or distillates used for flavor extraction are done 3 times to remove everything but the ethanol molecules.

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    I didn't know it, but a dressing I ate on a daily basis had switched from cider vinegar to distilled vinegar. I was getting more sick everyday. I had to go back to a very bland diet and then slowly add everything I had been eating, one product at a time. Then I read the label, stopped using the dressing and started to get better. I am a very sensitive celiac, but I raise this question. If as you say, a sensitive celiac could see have problems with distilled products, isn't it very possible that other celiacs are also damaging themselves without any symptoms? I know others who can't have distilled vinegar and they aren't as sensitive as myself.

    I quit using salad dressings altogether, since we have one child who can't have egg on top of myself being celiac. I use a bit of extra light virgin oil, white balsamic vinegar, garlic salt and a bit of pepper. No one gets sick. I throw a bit of cut up gluten free bacon and if they want crunch I put in a few cut up mini tomatoes.

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    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).

    You have to watch your coolers. Most of them have gluten in them. There is one Canadian Brand that advertises gluten free. The Black Fly Brand Cranberry flavor is excellent.

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    This is malpractice. Distillation may remove 99+ percent of gluten, but it does not remove all. It may make the item "gluten free", but it still contains gluten. That is why there is multiple distillation. Any scientist knows this. Posting false information as a doctor, a perceived expert, is fraudulent.

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    ok, for what it’s worth, i got ambushed by a “sciency” type guy last night. he is an herbalist, as is my wife. i mentioned that i make gluten free, booze for the herbal tinctures she uses. his response,…….all distilled alcohol is gluten free.

    i tried to point out that this is not the case and he threw the molecule size debate at me. i’m gluten sensitive and don’t have a chemistry background but i had read about this debate years before(he claimed he was unaware that there was a debate at all…(you know, the science is settled routine)

    i did my own experiment when i bought the “no gluten in distilled alcohol” side of the debate. not as much of an experiment but one of expediency and cost. i chose to buy grain based “everclear” and re-distill it myself since it contains no gluten, i could remove the higher alcohols(you have to look it up). what i found was that i was having gluten like reactions to this newly distilled alcohol. where i controlled everything that went in and out of the still. 

    yes, it’s anecdotal but more than many “sciency” types have bothered to do. if celiacs keep having reactions to grain based alcohol, then, there should be some double blind studies to prove it and then find out why. there is some link missing behind the textbook explanation and reality.

    science says….”don’t believe your lying eyes”…..or in this case, …..gut

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    On 11/12/2018 at 12:41 PM, Guest Jeff said:

    This is malpractice. Distillation may remove 99+ percent of gluten, but it does not remove all. It may make the item "gluten free", but it still contains gluten. That is why there is multiple distillation. Any scientist knows this. Posting false information as a doctor, a perceived expert, is fraudulent.

    Distillation removes ALL gluten and renders anything gluten-free. Science backs this up.

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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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