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

    Megan Tichy Ph.D.

    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 Diane Hurd

    Posted

    Very good, understandable language and correlates with other articles already read on the same subject. Definitely would read everything this author writes on the subject. Thank you!

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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.

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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?

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    I appreciate the teaching that has occurred in this article. I understand the science behind alcohol being gluten free BUT I still have a reaction to any that is distilled through grains. At first I thought my reactions may have been psychosomatic. Maybe it's just because I am questioning the validity of truly being gluten free. But not too long ago I had a very serious reaction and did research on the drink I had, Indeed it was a wheat/Barley vodka. I believe that for most people it may be fine. BUT I have always been super sensitive and am continually reminded that I must be careful.

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    Excellent article. This could not have been any more clear and to the point with regard to distillation and gluten-sensitivity. Great read!

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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?

    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.

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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.

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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.

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    Guest margaret

    Posted

    Good article.I always buy only triple distilled myself, just to be on the safe side.

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    I appreciate the teaching that has occurred in this article. I understand the science behind alcohol being gluten free BUT I still have a reaction to any that is distilled through grains. At first I thought my reactions may have been psychosomatic. Maybe it's just because I am questioning the validity of truly being gluten free. But not too long ago I had a very serious reaction and did research on the drink I had, Indeed it was a wheat/Barley vodka. I believe that for most people it may be fine. BUT I have always been super sensitive and am continually reminded that I must be careful.

    Sarah, I have had the same experience and I don't believe that distillation means gluten free. I, as you started looking at distilled alcohol AFTER I had a reaction. Before that I hadn't even thought alcohol could be a culprit. Those who are very sensitive should just stick to things like rum, sake and wine. All the ingredients are gluten free and I have never had a problem with any of these.

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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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