You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Defining "Gluten-Free"

Oregon has weirdly become ground-zero in the battle over what it means for a beer to be "gluten-free."  It seems pretty obvious, doesn't it?--no gluten.  As always, the meaning of words depends on which lawyers you consult (pdf):
[The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)] has also received inquiries from brewers and importers who wish to make label claims about the gluten content of malt beverages fermented from malted barley and other gluten-containing grains. In these cases, industry members claim that they have used various processes to remove most of the gluten from their products, and that the remaining gluten is at low levels (usually below 10 ppm). It also has been suggested that the distillation of mashes fermented from grains containing gluten in the production of distilled spirits products removes most of the gluten from such products. Finally, other products may be crafted in a manner that significantly reduces the gluten content of the finished products.

Despite the contention of several industry members that some currently available tests can measure the gluten content of malt beverage products, pending the issuance of a final rule by FDA, TTB takes the position that these methods cannot be used to substantiate a specific claim about the gluten content of products fermented or distilled from gluten-containing grains, such as “gluten-free” or “x ppm gluten,” because the methods have not yet been scientifically validated to accurately measure the gluten content of fermented products. [Bolding mine]
This matters, because the newest, most high-profile entrant to the world of gluten-free brewing is Omission, from Craft Brewers Alliance, made from regular barley with regular barley malt by removing gluten during the brewing process.  Smaller players like Harvester (who instantly sent out a press release touting the ruling) make beer with grains that start gluten free, and stand to gain a lot by how the government defines this beer category.

Interestingly, it's not the TTB that has final say in this, but the FDA.  And the FDA is currently considering wording that would define "gluten-free" in this narrow sense (the agency doesn't believe it's possible to accurately test for the presence of gluten), with language that seems to be directed right at Omission:
FDA proposes to define the term "gluten-free" to mean that a food bearing this claim in its labeling does not contain any one of the following:
  • 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
Of course, that 20 ppm standard is what Omission has targeted--and to be fair, is the European standard.

So there you have it.  I am wholly ignorant of the science in the debate--is any gluten too much?, can you measure gluten accurately?--but it seems like some people with Celiac disease favor the more liberal ruling.  It'll be interesting to watch this develop.


  1. My (also ignorant) understanding is that there are different levels of gluten intolerance from trace-amounts-causing-life-threatening-consequences to much more mild reactions. It seems like truth in advertising and consumer choice are probably the way to go here (as often).

  2. This is a very interesting topic for the beer community and consumers in general -- especially those with gluten sensitivities. It's obviously an issue that impacts Omission beer's labeling and marketing efforts, and one that we're paying close attention to. But despite the current status of the FDA's proposal and the interim ruling from the TTB, we're optimistic about the forthcoming formal rulings, which could be set later this year.

    As noted here, the TTB’s language may seem to be directed right at Omission. But there are several other breweries selling similarly brewed beers in the United States (the most well-known of those are imports). All of these breweries and beer brands are impacted by the recent ruling. Unlike some other breweries, we have been working closely with the TTB and following TTB rules and guidelines throughout the development and launch of Omission. And in working with the TTB over the last several months, we expected that the recent ruling would be made. Now that the TTB has issued the interim ruling, we will continue working to ensure that we remain in compliance with all relevant agencies.

    For what it's worth, it's important to note that Omission beer is not "made by removing gluten from regular barley," as suggested here. Rather, Omission is brewed with traditional beer ingredients, including regular malted barley; gluten is removed later in the brewing process, not from the actual barley itself.

    Another point of interest – as part of the recent ruling, the TTB has asked that the following disclaimer accompany any beers brewed with malted barley, where gluten is removed: “Product fermented from grains containing gluten and crafted to remove gluten. The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.”

    Brady Walen
    Marketing Communications Manager
    Omission Beer

  3. Brady, thanks for the correction. (Obviously, your methods mystify me!) I'll fix it in the text.

  4. This is an interesting issue...thanks for bringing it up. It certainly makes sense to me that the FDA will be the ones to rule on this. The TTB is merely there to monitor what goes on labels.

    For a product like Omission, which uses normal malted barley, perhaps labeling to that effect makes sense. The question that occurs to me is this: Does the CBA believe labeling like that would have a significant negative impact on wide acceptance of the brand? Brady?

  5. My mom gets violently ill if consumes trace amounts of gluten,(a bread crumb on a stick of butter) but I don't know where that would fall on the parts per million scale, and if the European standard would is strict enough for her.

    I guess it's lucky she doesn't like beer anyway...

  6. New Planet Beer Co. is Colorado’s only certified gluten-free beer. Its headquarters is in Boulder; it is contract brewed at Fort Collins Brewing Co. They produce three beers. The beers are made from sorghum, corn, and brown rice; no barley or wheat. Further, the beer is filtered to 1 micron filter to ensure yeast removal. NPBC's website reports its beers are available in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

    I have never had one.

  7. Seems to me that if one's gluten intolerance is powerful (and not merely a strong preference, perhaps one shouldn't be consuming a product largely made with grain products.)

  8. I think the goal of the FDA, in this situation, is to protect those people with severe gluten issues. If trace amounts will cause them to react, then "gluten free" really needs to be exactly that. If the goal of beer crafters is to make a beer that these gluten free people can enjoy, then they will have to conform to those standards.

    HOWEVER, there are lots of us that are not as sensitive to the gluten and the European standard would be fine. Personally, I love Omission beer. It is, by far, the best "gluten free" beer out there. I don't believe that if the FDA ruled to make gluten free = no gluten at all, their business would be hurt at all. Gluten free people tend to be a pretty informed bunch. It would be great to have another classification though (ex. Low gluten or minimal gluten) that was used for the products with less than 20ppm. That wold make it easier for us to continue to be informed.