(Nearly) Passing the Test: Gluten-Free Beer Regulation in the US

In our last post, we discussed the prospect of brewing gluten-free beer with barley. We found that unfortunately the jury’s still out, and that it’s really up to the individual to determine their own dietary needs. The bottom line is that beer brewed with barley is not completely gluten-free, but rather has gluten level that may or may not be below the acceptable limit for celiacs.

In this post, we’ll look into how beer is tested for gluten. According to the World Health Organization’s Codex Alimentarius, beer brewed with barley or wheat must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Though the FDA just recently completed a study on safe levels of gluten in food (as discussed in our last post), the FDA currently does not have a set definition of “gluten-free food” other than companies must not use it in a way that is “misleading.” However, many gluten-free food manufacturers voluntarily test their products, especially when they use ingredients containing gluten.

FDA “Proposes” Definitions for Gluten-Free Foods

Although they have not set standards, the FDA is proposing to define gluten-free foods as any food that does not contain any of the following:

  • An ingredient that is a prohibited grain (Wheat, Rye, Barley, or hybrids of the three)
  • An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has not been processed to remove gluten
  • An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has been processed to remove gluten, if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food or
  • 20 ppm or more gluten

This would mean that all gluten-free foods in the US would have to contain below 20 ppm, and should be tested if made from “ingredients derived from prohibited grains.”

Current and Potential Testing for Gluten-free Beer

The only well-tested and most commonly used method to measure gluten levels in beer and food is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test. However, according to a study by Colgrave et al, this test can actually under- or overestimate certain groups of hordeins. Hordein is the type of gluten found in barley. The tests fail to accurately measure gluten that has been hydrolyzed (broken down) during the brewing process. (ed. note: for more of a discussion on gluten-free beer testing, see our more recent post on the recent TTB ruling).

In light of this, the Colgrave used mass spectrometry, a technique for analyzing the makeup of molecules, to determine the types and amounts of gluten in beer. They analyzed 60 commercial beers, eight of which were labeled “gluten free” and several of which were “low gluten” beers brewed from barley.

Gluten-free Content in Beer

The study found that hordein (gluten) was indeed present in most commercial beers. They also found that the gluten-free beers, which were brewed from sorghum malt, teff, rice, millet, or maize, contained no hordein (gluten) proteins. However, two of the the “low-gluten” barley beers actually contained as much gluten as regular beers, and some of the regular beers contained very little gluten. From the study:

“Signi?cantly both barley based low-gluten beers tested, in which the hordein concentration is reduced by proprietary processing steps during brewing to reduce the concentration in the ?nal beer product, had substantial levels of one or more hordein proteins.”

Key takeaways from this post:

  1. The FDA proposes that gluten-free beer contain less than 20 ppm gluten, and should be tested if made from ingredients containing gluten
  2. The most common test for gluten in food is the ELISA test, which may not accurately test for the gluten found in beer
  3. Beer brewed from naturally gluten-free ingredients does not contain gluten, as found by the Colgrave Study
  4. Barley-based beer tested in the Colgrave study actually contained as much gluten as regular beer

Any questions or comments? Let us know below! And we promise the next post will be less technical and more about beer.