Gluten free beer is exploding in popularity in the United Kingdom. Brands like Daura Damm, Celia and Green’s can found on shelves all over the country. But are these beers really safe for coeliacs? Coeliac UK says yes, but research on the subject has left many people questioning whether the answer is really that simple.
Naturally gluten free versus gluten removed beers
There are two types of gluten free beers on the market. The first is brewed from ingredients without gluten, like sorghum, corn, rice and lentils. These beers are naturally gluten free because they are made from naturally gluten free ingredients, leaving no room for gluten to become an issue in the entire brewing process. The second type is gluten removed beers, which are made from traditional ingredients like barley, but then processed to “remove” the gluten. This is typically done via an enzyme treatment during fermentation, though some brewers also use yeast that aids in the breakdown of gluten. The resulting beer can be labelled “gluten free” in the United Kingdom if less than 20 parts per million of gluten are detected in the final product.
Gluten testing methods
The standard test used for detecting gluten in food is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) R5 sandwich test. This test uses two antibodies to “sandwich” a molecule for measurement. However, it is known to be unreliable for detecting gluten in fermented foods and beverages like beer. Researchers then developed the ELISA R5 competitive test, which only uses one antibody, and “has greater precision, accuracy, and reproducibility.” However, it has “lower overall sensitivity” than the sandwich test. The competitive R5 ELISA is the test recommended by Coeliac UK to detect gluten in fermented beverages like beer.
Detecting gluten in beer
When barley and other gluten-containing grains are made into beer, they undergo a process which chemically alters the gluten. Fermentation hydrolyses gluten in beer. Hydrolysis is “a chemical process of decomposition” which changes the chemistry of the affected molecules. Then the gluten is treated with enzymes that break it down further, effectively cutting the proteins into smaller pieces. Enzyme-based detection methods are looking for a full gluten protein; they are unable to accurately detect these broken down proteins. Nima Sensor has a good explanation of how this works in beer.
But is it safe?
A very small Italian study found that fully hydrolyzed wheat was well-tolerated by coeliacs. This wheat contained gluten at 8 parts per million. This study used wheat in baked goods and wasn’t specific to beer.
Gluten Free Dietician magazine notes the ELISA test will detect one particular amino acid, which points to the presence of gluten in beer. But, author Tricia Thompson says, “this does not mean the beer is free of other toxic peptides” even when the test fails to detect that one particular amino acid. Oregon Live reported in 2013 that “scientists say the test doesn’t detect all potentially harmful gluten fragments.” “Tests by Canada’s public health agency found gluten fragments in beers from Spain and Belgium that use a gluten-removal process” similar to the one used by Omission Beer, a well-known gluten-removed barley beer in the United States. In that story, they interview Stephen Taylor, co-director of the University of Nebraska’s food allergy research and resource program. Dr. Taylor notes his concern that there might be “big pieces of gluten protein left in this beer that are still potentially hazardous.” He goes on to wonder, “does it make the beer safe for people with coeliac disease? The answer to that is nobody knows.”