mass spectrometry looks pretty neat, no?

Hot on the heels of last week’s gluten-free beer news, an interesting study on the gluten found in normal beer.

If you open your ears to the chatter, you’ll hear lots of different theories on gluten in beer. Some people will tell you that most “regular” beers are safe, because the gluten has been fermented away. Some people will tell you only light beers are safe. Others will tell you only those beers that are specifically labeled gluten-free and created from grains other than wheat/barley/rye/oat are safe.

What gives? Why is it so hard to get a straight answer, and — more to the point — what can we drink and what can’t we?

Read on, gentle reader, read on. Let me warn you, first, to manage your expectations: there’s no list of “safe” “regular” beers at the end of this post.

One of the biggest misconceptions about gluten detection is the idea that gluten is a singular, traceable, identifiable thing. It’s not. The term gluten refers to a jumble of different proteins, which differ in size, structure and toxicity not only from grain to grain but from plant to plant. What’s more, most of the content of those proteins passes easily through the systems of the gluten intolerant and celiac — it’s only tiny little fractions that trigger the immune response.

Two of the biggest struggle points in gluten detection, historically, have been a) gluten from barley, which older antibodies often misrepresent and b) gluten in fermented and hydrolyzed foods, because the molecules get so broken apart and rearranged that it can be hard for antibodies to determine whether or not they are still toxic.

Newer antibodies like G12 are proving themselves able to fill in these gaps in ability, but the study we’re talking about today used a different method altogether: mass spectrometry (if you’re curious, wikipedia has a good introduction; the method itself is quite expensive and highly specialized, so you likely won’t see it used outside of studies any time soon).

The scientists in question, mostly in Australia, developed mass spectrometry methods that could identify whether or not the gluten in barley — specifically the hordein, one of barley’s protein groups — remained in beers that contained barley. Not only did they analyze 60 commercially available beers, but they brewed their own to be doubly certain that they understood the components of their sample.

The results indicated that beers labeled gluten-free and made without barley or other gluten-containing grains contained no detectable gluten, as expected. Beers that were not explicitly labeled gluten-free tested across a wide spectrum, some having very little gluten and some having high amounts. Beers labeled low-gluten (two were tested) did not necessarily have the less gluten than some non-labeled beers.

Unfortunately the study does not indicate any brand names to avoid or stick close to, which means that the study is only of limited value for your everyday gluten-free drinker. We’d recommend sticking to tried-and-true gluten-free beers for now (Bard’s and Redbridge seem to be favorites, judging by comments over time). You can always check your gluten-free grocery guide for safe options, or this slide show from Men’s Health.