Is Beer Brewed from Barley Safe for Celiacs?
Gluten-free beers use grains that naturally don’t contain gluten, such as sorghum. Gluten-reduced beers choose instead to use barley, which does contain gluten, and remove the gluten during or after the brewing process. Estrella Damm has been doing this for years with their Daura beer, and recently Widmer Brothers Brewery followed suit, announcing their Omission line of beers. Both breweries create their beers from the usual ingredients (barley, hops, yeast, and water) and remove the gluten with a proprietary process. Estrella Damm claims they developed their process in conjunction with the National Scientific Research Council gluten unit. Omission sends each batch they brew out to be tested before its shipped.
The Definition of Gluten Free: A Brief History
The qualifications for a food or beverage to be gluten-free was created by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which is a pretty impressive-sounding name. This commission was originally founded by the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1963, which was in turn created by the United Nations and the World Health Organization. The Codex Alimentarius, latin for “Book of Food”, sets out “internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety.”
In 2008, the commission met in Geneva and revised the requirement for foods to be labeled as “gluten-free.” Originally set at 200 parts per million (ppm), the standard was reduced by an order of magnitude, to 20 ppm. Some countries are imposing other restriction, such as Canada, where gluten must be identified on products in plain terms (wheat, barely, rye) by August 4, 2012. Daura contains 6 ppm gluten, and Omission contains “well below the international gluten-free standard.”
How Much Gluten is Too Much?
Parts per millions refers to the proportion of gluten in the food. It literally means that for every million molecules in the food, you can’t have more than 20 molecules of gluten. That may not sound like a lot, but remember that molecules are really small, so anything you’re eating contains a whole lot of them. So what are the safe levels of gluten, and how are they being determined?
Much is still unclear about how safe different levels of gluten are. Two recent studies, one by Catassis et al. in 2007 and by the FDA in 2011 found that consumption levels of gluten higher than 50 milligrams per day and 0.4 milligrams per day, respectively, could have adverse health effects on celiacs, including damage to the wall of the intestine. Using these estimates, they extrapolated this data to an approximately 400 gram diet. The Catassis study recommended limits of 20 ppm, as this keeps the daily gluten intake well below 50 mg/day.
The FDA study found that quantities as low as 1ppm were still too high. Keep in mind that they’re creating this estimate on the amount of “gluten free” food that someone with celiac disease eats in a single day. They’re saying that if all food labeled “gluten-free” contained 1ppm of gluten, it could result in negative health effects for celiacs. What really unfortunate about this is that 1ppm is below the current testing abilities of the FDA. As a result, the FDA submitted this study for peer review to gain the opinion of experts in the field.
Bottom Line: Should Celiacs Drink Beer Brewed from Barley?
Beers made from barley that are labeled “processed to remove gluten” must contain less than 20 ppm of gluten. Some studies support this number, while others call it into question. It is really up to the individual to determine whether or not the barley based beers meet their individual dietary needs. Still, truly gluten-free beers that are brewed from 100% gluten free ingredients are the way to go for those who are most sensitive, and for those who enjoy drinking beer regularly.
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