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Why We Don’t “De-Glutenize”

Being a dedicated gluten-free brewery, we at Ghostfish tend to face a certain stigma. Simply put, many drinkers, brewers, and general beer aficionados tend to view anything brewed without barley as “not beer”, and many will dismiss out-of-hand a beer like ours without even trying it, simply because of the ingredients. It’s not helping our cause that there are now a few breweries putting out beer made from barley and claiming that it is safe for those with gluten intolerance. Never mind that neither the TTB nor the FDA allows them to explicitly make this claim on the packaging; these companies have found ways to skirt that through clever marketing and merchandising, and have led many consumers to believe that truly safe beer can be made from malted barley. This has led some people to wonder why we’re “mucking about” with exotic malted grains instead of jumping on the “de-glutenized” bandwagon. This post should lay such questions to rest.

First of all, let’s examine what de-glutenized beer is (we’ll call it “DG beer” for short). We can’t speak to the processes used by ALL breweries putting out DG beers, but from this source we know that at least one brewery uses a combination of a special low-protein barley variety and a special enzyme that breaks down the intermolecular bonds in the gluten and hordein molecules, coupled with strict sanitation practices and rigorous testing of the final product. It stands to reason that other breweries making DG beer use similar methods.

It is the testing of the final product that leads these breweries to believe they can claim their product is safe. By all accounts, they use the most reliable tests possible, which should detect even the known-to-be-harmful hydrolyzed fragments of the gluten protein, and as long as their results are under 5 parts per million, they consider the product safe. Seems like sound science, right? If the test can’t detect gluten, it must be gluten-free…and therefore safe for those with gluten intolerance.  Right?

Here’s the problem: while the idea seems sound at first blush, there are no double-blind placebo-controlled studies on people with various forms of gluten intolerance that substantiate the safety of these beers. All the evidence we have on the safety of these beers is anecdotal. This is the main reason why neither the FDA nor the TTB will grant these breweries the right to label their beers as gluten-free (except, apparently, in the state of Oregon?). Calling a product “gluten free” is a health claim, and as such needs to be subject to the same rigor as getting a new pharmaceutical drug approved. No brewery or institution has yet to produce such research-based evidence. Go figure that there are ALSO many, many anecdotes attesting that these beers are NOT safe and do cause a reaction–our humble brewmaster can certainly share a few!

Moreover, the theory behind the de-glutenizing procedure is not as sound as it seems. The various forms of gluten intolerance (both celiac and non-celiac forms) are not completely understood from a pathological standpoint, as the research is rather scant compared to other gastrointestinal diseases. One important fact that is overlooked by the DG breweries is that there is mounting evidence that other proteins found in the gluten-containing grains can trigger reactions just as frequently as the currently-recognized culprits (see here, here, and here for some such studies). It is not clear that the testing used on DG beers covers all potential reaction-causing compounds, since we haven’t even begun to come up with an exhaustive list of them. Studies on gluten intolerance also tend to focus primarily on compounds found in wheat; studies on reaction-causing compounds in barley or rye are considerably less common, so there is very little data on other potential reaction-causing proteins exclusive to barley.

The upshot of this is that DG beer represents a unique challenge for safety testing. Consider that outside of DG beer, any cross-contamination with gluten will come from whole, intact gluten molecules, containing within them ALL the possible reaction-causing compounds–cross-contamination usually takes the form of stray whole grains or particles of flour. In such cases, you only need to be able to detect ONE of the compounds to assess cross-contamination, because if you catch one, you catch them all. In DG beer, however, the de-glutenizing enzymes have broken these compounds apart, and specifically broken at least one of them down into a supposedly-inert form. However, what about the other ones? They are now unbound from the main complex, and if a test isn’t designed to catch them specifically, they can sneak right on by undetected. This is an unprecedented challenge in gluten testing, because it makes it necessary to test for all potential reaction-causing compounds…which can’t be done, because no one knows all of the compounds to look for!

Thus, the safety standards set by organizations like the Celiac Sprue Association should not be applied to DG beer. It is a unique product that demands unique standards, unique medical research, and unique testing. Sadly, the need for these unique standards does not appear to be recognized yet by the leading certification organizations (though we are hoping to change that).

It’s also worth noting that allergies to barley are typically triggered not by hordein or gluten-like proteins, but rather by a protein with the poetic name of “Lipid Transfer Protein 1“–the main barley protein that is responsible for head retention. The enzymes used to reduce the gluten in beer are specifically designed NOT to mess with LTP-1 in order to preserve foam stability. So de-glutenized beers are no less problematic for those with an allergy to barley.

What we have concluded from all of this is that if we want to make beer that is 100%safe for everyone who cannot normally consume wheat or barley due to allergies or intolerances, we simply must turn to other grains that are naturally devoid of any potential triggering proteins. Fortunately, that does not entail nearly as much of a compromise as it did even a year ago, as 2013 saw the emergence of two artisan maltsters in Colorado offering a full range of specialty malts made from 100% gluten-free grains. Prior to their arisal, any brewery that wanted such malts was out of luck, unless they wanted to sink a huge chunk of change into researching, developing, and producing their own malts. We are very fortunate to be going into business at the dawning of the gluten-free malting industry, and are SO EXCITED to be among the first breweries to bring beer made with these artisanal malts to market!

The days of having to choose between flavor and safety are swiftly drawing to a close, and so too are the days of the stigma of brewing without barley!

[For a great article on the many forms of gluten intolerance and the difficulties in testing for them, see HERE.]

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