A deceptive approach by the alcohol industry to allow some brands of beer to be labeled as "low-gluten" and even "gluten-free" has critics crying foul. Many of these brands actually contain high levels of gluten and could cause problems for people with celiac disease, a new study says.
"It's all a marketing gimmick by the beer industry that wants to hop on the gluten-free bandwagon to attract more customers," said industry insider Michele Laveau. "It is almost impossible to manufacture a tasteful low-gluten beer and they know it," Laveau added.
Gluten can be found in many common cereal grains including barley and wheat. Even in small quantities, the glutens specifically from barley and wheat (hordein and gliadin respectively) can trigger serious symptoms in those who suffer from Celiac disease. People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, a protein that triggers a reaction that damages the small intestine. Diarrhea, constipation, fatigue and abdominal pain are among the symptoms experienced by people with celiac disease when they consume foods and beverages with gluten.
Almost all beer contains levels of gluten that cannot be tolerated by the celiac, but a very few specialist breweries claim to cater to celiacs or those who otherwise cannot tolerate the consumption of one or other of the relevant glycoproteins.
Beer is made using barely, which contains a form of gluten called hordein. However, some beer companies contend that the brewing process eliminates gluten or reduces it to very low levels, according to a release from the Journal of Proteome Research, where the new study appears.
Because existing tests for detecting gluten in malted products are not very accurate, the research team developed a new test that's highly accurate for hordein.
Brewers who produce low gluten beers are required to test every batch for gluten, and record gluten levels in "parts per million" ('ppm'). Although the barley hordeins in such tests may not be detected, smaller pieces of these proteins, known as peptides, may remain and be toxic for celiacs
They used this test to analyze 60 commercial beers and found that many of the regular brands contained significant levels of hordein.
The researchers were surprised to discover that some of the brands labeled "gluten-free" actually had about as much hordein as regular beer.
Around the world standards of "gluten free" vary. For example, in the United Kingdom a beer with less than 20 parts per million gluten (20ppm) is "gluten free", while in Australia only beers with no detectable gluten can be described as gluten free. Similarly, some "gluten-free" breads can contain low levels of gluten in one country, in another they would contravene labelling or food standards legislation.
While the definitions of world standards for the term "gluten free" vary, the safest course of action for people with celiac disease would be to adhere to strictest possible definition (no detectable gluten).
No published long term studies exist that track the effects of the consistent use of low levels of celiac-triggering glutens on patients with celiac disease, while many published papers exist that document the damage these glutens cause.
The only treatment for people with celiac disease is to remain on a lifelong gluten-free diet and that includes beer.