Breaking News from the Beerologists: Are “Regular” Beers Safe for Celiacs?

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.


25 thoughts on “Breaking News from the Beerologists: Are “Regular” Beers Safe for Celiacs?”

  1. As someone who, unfortunately, knowingly cheated on the gluten-free diet while in college by drinking regular beer, I can tell you that it is NOT safe for celiacs. I used to call it my glutenover, instead of my hangover. While my friends would have headaches the next morning, I could barely move. My stomach would be hard as a rock and my whole body hurt. I chalk up my irresponsible behavior to my age. If I could go back, I would never have drank beer in college. I don’t care what the scientists say, but my body will never EVER drink regular beer.

  2. When I was diagnosed with celiac in the 1970’s I was told to avoid wheat, rye, barley, oats, bran, and malt. Now, of course, there are dedicated oats fields and processing equipment so that gluten free oats are available. I have never heard much about the danger of malt, however, although I have always avoided beer for that reason.

  3. Unfortunately the study does not indicate any brand names to avoid or stick close to

    Actually the study was quite clear – all the beers brewed with barley contained one or more of the hordein proteins. This included the beers with a “low gluten” label. The beers that were labeled gluten free did not contain barley and therefore no hordein proteins.

    As much as I don’t like the conclusion because I like “real” beer, the only beer without gluten is the stuff that does not contain barley at all.

  4. I have a strong sensitivity to gluten (microscopic amounts will set me off) and I have no trouble with beer, at least Miller Lite, Bud Lite and Corona Lite. I do, however, have problems with grain alcohol, which some celiacs don’t have because it is distilled. I guess we are all different in our disease.

  5. I’m not a beer drinker, but I sometimes steam seafood using beer. I don’t usually experience any problems, but I wonder if the gluten in beer is still an issue if you’re steaming food with it and not eating it directly? . . .

  6. I would love to know what the so-called “low gluten beers” were. DAURA is a Spanish beer specially brewed from Barley to minimize gluten and it is certified to be less than 6ppm. I may not be as sensitive as others, but I have not experienced any difficulties. I have tried many gluten-free beers. Some I couldn’t even finish one bottle. DAURA is by far my favorite.

    If there is cross-contamination at a salad bar, I might not feel ill, but I get that nasty rash. I mistakenly ate a “GF” turkey last Thanksgiving, but was in agony afterwards for a couple of days. Found out that they had stuffed the turkey, and didn’t believe me when I said that was a no, no for me.

    I know that the FDA is testing their idea of less than 20ppm to claim Gluten-Free. So, under that limit, DAURA would pass as GF. Is that bad thinking on my part?

  7. New Planet is by far my favorite GF beer. They have an “Off the Grid Pale Ale” that tastes as close to regular beer as I’ve had. Their “tred lighly” tastes a lot like Corona, so throw a lime in it. They’re both Gluten Free & brewed in Colorado.

  8. And I still think that 20ppm is too high for those who have Celiac Disease and/or severe gluten intolerance. Because I can see manufactuerers “fudging” their results. I also was always told that we had to completely stay away from gluten–how is 20ppm “staying away from gluten?”

  9. For those who think that regular beer won’t hurt them, they are playing with fire. I had no visible symptoms of gluten intolerance other then the recurrent sinus infections, and gradual degrading of my health. Didn’t know I had this condition til I was 50! Just because you don’t get a stomach upset or other visible signs, doesn’t mean the gluten isn’t damaging the digestive tract. Often the damage goes undetected until other symptoms appear like inability to digest food or malabsorption of nutrients thus leading to such problems as osteoporsis, low immunity, weight gain, and the list goes on. So monitor your health and pay attention to the ‘symptoms’. Disease is a result of insufficient nutrients. Since being gluten free now for almost 2 years, any miniscule contamination (often from a waffle iron or skillet not washed between uses.) now causes me to itch which I never experienced before diagnosis.

  10. Beer is a killer for me too! I actually stopped drinking beer, which I love, before I was diagnosed as Celiac becauue it made me so sick. My new favorite GF beers are the ones from Greens Endeavor out of Belgium, they make three types and even a dark beer all in the Belgium style. If you really loved beer before these are worth seeking out!

  11. I lived with Celiac for decades before I knew what was going on and my favorite beer was Guinness. I rarely noticed any incremental problems, but once I went Gluten-free all bets were off. Now even the smallest amounts of any regular beer (including beer used in cooking) set me off and stouts are the worst offenders.

    Redbridge and Bard’s are absolutely fine and don’t cause any problems, but they’re not a great subsitute for a well pulled pint of stout or porter. :(

    I have no problem at all with single-malt scotch. Blends are another story, but if I stick to single-malts there’s no problem at all. I suspect that some distilleries are cutting the blends with something other than properly distilled spirits or maybe they’re just more careful about contamination.

    Surprisingly, I’ve also had the occassional odd-ball U.S. domestic wine that’s caused a reaction. It’s never happened with wines from any other country (so far), so there must be some unique process involving gluten that’s only used in the US.

  12. Redbridge is a very good gluten free beer, kind of like the British “Bass Ale” in taste – not a lite beer. I won’t risk cheating and felling sick, and I enjoy the Redbridge brand very much. I live in Philadelphia, and they even sell it at the Phillies games. Every game I attend I get a GF beer and a hotdog on a GF roll….It is good enough that my husband who is not GF gets the same as me to support the availability of the gluten free products!

  13. When I drank beer in pre-GF days, I loved what we in the Northwest call “chewy beers”–dark or with lots of hoppy flavour. I don’t care for the lightness of Bards or Redbridge but Green’s DoubleDark hits the spot. Expensive, but then it’s for special occasions now. St. Peter’s is my second choice and the lovely green bottle is molded from from the original in the 1700s and is worth keeping for a vase.

    I agree with Uliana that thinking “no symptoms” from “minor” gluten consumption is a danger zone. The disease is thought by many doctors to be neurological in nature and for everyone takes a different neural pathway. For many, it seems to be primarily digestive but the range of manifestations is huge: brain inflammation/lesions, osteoporosis, specific organ disease like liver cancer, arthritic pains, you name it. I’m amazed how different the symptoms are that I get with tiny accidental exposures–skin bumps, burning palms, itchy fingers, digestive troubles or various pains in feet or chest, etc. The article’s explanation that gluten refers to a jumble of different proteins that differ in size, structure and toxicity help explain why different exposures result in different symptoms.

  14. One other option to be more beer safe, which works for me: the use of a gluten protease capsule to predigest the bad stuff in a good beer before it hits the gut.

    I’m not a celiac (glutenine intolerant) but am deeply intolerant of gliadin, the other fraction of the gluten molecule. One “good real full-bodied beer” like an IPA is enough to create immediate gastric distress followed by lasting inflammation. But one protease capsule eliminates both responses by breaking down the gliadin into safe components, allowing me to enjoy an occasional normal beer.

    I’ve used two products with equal success: glutenzyme by pharmax, and GlutenEase by Enzymedica. (I’m not affiliated with either company.)

    Though I jokingly call this my “magic beer pill,” I’m careful not to push my luck into multiple beers at a sitting or even more than one a week.

    Your experience could certainly differ, so approach a trial with caution. But it’s certainly opened up the world of gluten-free-beer-through-chemistry to me.

  15. No beer for me! I drank beer in college (usually in moderation), but it wasn’t long before I realized that beer “didn’t agree with me.” I opted for wine or mixed drinks whenever possible. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 40+ years old, but the diagnosis sure explained a LOT of things! I will never drink another beer, GF or not. Just the thought of it makes me ill.

  16. I AM CELIAC AND VERY SENSITIVE. I USED TO LUV BEER BUT NOW KNOW WHY I NEVER HAD A NORMAL HANGOVER,BUT A MASSIVE BODY ACHE MUSCLES BONES EVERYTHING. CELIAC!!. MY COUSIN DIED OF THIS TERRIBLE DISEASE AND I WAS PRETTY BAD BEFORE THEY GOT ME DIAGONSED. MY DOCTOR TELLS ME THAT THEY BELIEVE THAT THERE WERE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO DIED OF IT BEFORE THE GOT IT FIGURED OUT. IT WAS ONLY BECAUSE THEY SENT ME TO THE DOCTOR THAT FINALLY DIAGONSED HIM. BUT BACK TO THE BEER I AM SO AFRAID OF EVEN TRYING A GLUTEN FREE BEER, BUT AFTER READING SOME OF YOUR COMMENTS, I MIGHT TRY ONE. IT REALLY HELPS TO KNOW THERE ARE OTHERS GOING THRU THE SAME THING.
    BLESSINGS,
    ARTIE

  17. The ONE time I had a regular beer after being diagnosed celiac, I had the worst sinus headache the next day. That was my major gluten symptom pre-diagnosis. Sinus headaches. Its not worth it. I love Greens beer and New Planet is good (new in my area too, but I think it has an authentic beer taste!). There are many new ciders on the market that are “seasonal”, mimicing the variety available with craft beers. But while we are on the subject of alcohol, I think the only time I get NO hangover and NO “glutenover” as Erin called it, is when I have rum or tequila. Many vodkas (unless distilled 6x or more) give me sinus headaches. I avoid whiskey and scotch (don’t trust it) and I sometimes react to the tannins in wine. As Sue stated, we are all different in our disease! Be well silly yaks!

  18. Thank you for mentioning these two products: glutenzyme by pharmax, and GlutenEase by Enzymedica.I didn’t know that anything like that existed. So I can take a pill and eat my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs and garlic bread and not want to die?

  19. I do not suffer from Gluten issues, however I do wish to reduce my Gluten intake. Can anyone suggest beers with low Gluten levels other than GF beer options. Thanks

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