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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Promising New Gluten-free Beers Meet Major Standards, But Government Agency Cries Foul

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Celiac.com 07/20/2012 - Many of the millions of Americans who suffer from celiac disease and gluten-intolerance are eagerly awaiting the FDA's forthcoming standards for gluten-free product labeling. Until then, different agencies may apply differing standards, often with confusing results.

    Photo: CC--The Northwest Beer GuideThe recent dust-up between Widmer Bros. brewing of Oregon, one of many breweries crafting gluten-free beers, and the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau ("TTB") over the ingredients in Widmer's gluten-free brew, provides a good illustration of the confusion that can arise when different sets of standards and rules govern what can and cannot be called 'gluten-free.'


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    Widmer Bros. is a division of Craft Brew Alliance (CBA), the nation’s ninth’s largest brewing company, and recently unveiled two new gluten-free beers, Omission Gluten Free Lager and Omission Gluten Free Pale Ale. Unlike most gluten-free beers, which are brewed from sorghum and usually taste very different than traditional beers, Omission is made using traditional ingredients, including barley--which contains gluten.

    Widmer then uses enzymes to reduce the gluten in both beers to a level that is well below the 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten threshold set by the World Health Organization for gluten-free products; the very standard likely to be followed soon by the FDA. Professional testing show gluten levels for Omission beers at just 5-6 ppm. Meanwhile, those familiar with the final products say they taste very much like traditional beers.

    However, it is not the gluten levels in the beer that seems to be at issue, but the fact that Widmer begins their brewing process with barley and other traditional ingredients. According to the TTB, wine, beer or distilled spirits made from ingredients that contain gluten cannot be labeled as ‘gluten-free.’

    Certainly the commonly accepted European standard of 20 ppm means that the vast majority of products labeled 'gluten-free' still contain measurable levels of gluten, a good deal of those likely above the 5-6 ppm of Widmer's beers.

    For beer drinkers with celiac disease, finding a gluten-free beer that tastes like a traditional beer is like finding the Holy Grail. Given that Omission beers supposedly taste closer to traditional beers than most gluten-free beers currently on the market, and given that they come in well below the standard for products to be labeled gluten-free, there are undoubtedly a number of people with celiac disease and gluten-intolerance that are hoping Widmer will prevail in their battle against the TTB.

    What do you think? Should the gluten-free standard be based on scientifically established gluten levels of the final product, or on the gluten levels in the ingredients originally used to create it? Should Widmer be allowed to label and sell their Omission beers as 'gluten-free?'

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    As long as there are no generic modifications or chemical residues involved in removing gluten, I have no problems with this approach. Who cares?

    I've yet to taste Omission, but have had (gluten-removed) Brunehaut several times and find it far superior to the 4-5 "alternative" ingredient gluten-free brews I've tried. It's just good beer.

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    The issue is not the level of gluten left in the beer, but rather the levels of gluten fragments left. Most test methods only measure the levels of full-length gluten protein in the beer. Celiacs have issues with shorter fragments as well (any over 12 amino acids).

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    Guest Gluten Free Beer

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    I have to agree with Issac on this - gluten removed gluten free beers will always have the "holy grail" taste. As long as the product is labeled as "gluten-removed" I do not see the problem.

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    I literally JUST had an argument with a grocery store manager a couple days ago because they had this beer in the gluten-free section and there was zero labeling on it that said it was gluten-free (plus it said it had barley in it). He swore up and down it was gluten-free and that the government wouldn't allow the beer company to label it that way, which to me didn't make any sense AT ALL. Now I at least know why it's the way it is and happy to hear they passed the gluten-free test, so I'll be trying it out in my next grocery run, thank you!

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    We tend to become addicted to our poisons. Celiacs who crave the smell of wheat bread and traditional beers are addicted to gluten. I have overcome my addiction and am repulsed by such smells. My doctor says the immune system of a celiac who was diagnosed as an adult, who had the disease for many years, is going to experience a "Pavlov's dog" effect and react to wheat or barley. Besides, it's not the parts per million that will get you, it's the number of parts. What beer drinker that is going to drink this stuff is going to drink just one bottle? Someone at the TTB is smart and I side with them. Calling this the holy grail emphasizes just how addicted one is.

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    I think that there is valid reason that I can conjure to base the gluten-free status of a product on its start ingredients. The final product in which consumers consume the product should be the final determination. If they really want to get technical, the so called gluten-free beers that start with sorghum like Redbridge shouldn't be called beer simply because it didn't start with the traditional ingredients. I am just saying that we are entering the effects of the Food & Drug Administration's (FDA) inability or unwillingness to define what can and can not be labeled gluten-free.

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    The standard for any product to be consumed by those who are gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive needs to be zero ppm, and equipment capable for detecting such needs to be developed.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in biology, anatomy, medicine, science, and advanced research, and scientific methods. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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