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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.'

    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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    I had a horrible reaction to Omission pale ale. It tasted great and I thought I'd be fine, but my body disagreed vehemently over the next several days. Whether it's the gluten fragments or 20ppm is too much gluten for me, something in it is enough to make me react. Symptoms or no symptoms, it's the systemic inflammation I'm worried about. I'll stick with wine, sorghum beer, or go without.

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    Interesting. The Omission packaging doesn't actually say "gluten-free" -- indeed doesn't really say the word gluten anywhere -- but suggests that you can go to a website to check gluten test results. The retailer, however, has it in the gluten-free section. I wonder how FDA is going to handle something like that.

     

    FWIW -- the beer is delicious, the pale ale particularly so. Also FWIW, I have celiac disease and don't have a notable bad reaction to it. I don't drink more than one or two, though. I suspect a 20 parts per million standard only works if you're not drinking millions and millions...

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    Here's my deal: unless some dude fixes your gluten-free meal at a restaurant in the back of his gluten -free car, then seals it and serves it to you in another gluten-free area, you WILL be exposed to something around 20PPM just by BREATHING in most restaurants. I say the same for your local "gluten-free" products from the grocery. 20PPM is NOTHING and Omission tests WAY below that. Domino's is the biggest offender. Their so called "gluten-free" pizza is nothing but a marketing gimmick as they prep and cook it in gluten covered areas. It will most likely make you suffer a gluten reaction. I know..

     

    Now about the fella that says it's not gluten-free, consider what I typed above. It is as gluten-free as you are going to get and still eat. If you got sick, well, maybe it was that you simply can't handle a decent beer. The stuff isn't some lightweight 3% beer. It's a 6% alcohol beer and will have the same negative effects as many other gluten-free alcoholic beverages, for better or worse.

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    I had a horrible reaction to Omission pale ale. It tasted great and I thought I'd be fine, but my body disagreed vehemently over the next several days. Whether it's the gluten fragments or 20ppm is too much gluten for me, something in it is enough to make me react. Symptoms or no symptoms, it's the systemic inflammation I'm worried about. I'll stick with wine, sorghum beer, or go without.

    I just found Omission beer and thought it was wonderful. However, I was sick for several days. I can't be absolutely sure it was the beer but I'll stay away from gluten removed beers from now on. I found this article by looking for literature about the safety of gluten removed beer. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

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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 science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. 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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