Is Gluten Free Beer really gluten free?


Hi, it's Jo here at An Easy Gluten Free Life and while I was researching for my Top 10 Gluten Free Beer Guide - I read some worrying stories about Coeliacs becoming unwell after drinking supposedly gluten free beer - so I decided to do some digging. Here's what I found:


Although there are many beers claiming to be gluten free nowadays, there is some debate over whether they are safe for Coeliacs. Legally in the UK and Europe, a beer needs to have gluten levels of 20 parts-per-million or less in a kilogram (<20ppm) to be classed as gluten free and 'safe'. Specifically, this means that it needs to measure <20ppm of gluten/gliadin which are found in wheat and are the most common cause of an immune response in Coeliacs.  


However 'Gluten Free Beers' that are made from Barley may still contain parts of the Barley protein Hordein which isn't linked to the gluten/gliadin and therefore could still cause a reaction. In a study by The University of Chicago's Celiac Research Center, 2 out of 31 test subjects had an immune response to 'gluten free' beer when it was introduced to their blood sample though they have not yet clarified which specific type of gluten caused these reactions.



Why do some Coeliacs become unwell after drinking GF beer?


Reason One 

Brewer's Clarex is an enzyme used by many breweries to break down bulky parts of gluten into smaller, digestible parts. Scientists argue that the newly broken down, smaller particles of gluten can not be detected by our body. However, some scientists debate that the smaller molecules may in fact,  be detectable by our digestive system after all.


Reason Two

Naturally 'Gluten Free beer' may actually contain more than <20ppm of gluten. If the beer naturally tests under 20ppm but is tested using the ELISA testing kit - this may not be an accurate test result. 


Reason Three

The most commonly used test for food allergens is ELISA. However, some scientists argue that it isn't sensitive enough to detect the newly broken down, smaller parts of gluten. Colgrave is a researcher with the government-run Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia. She and her team recently compared the test results of ELISA to the results of beers tested using a much more robust method: Liquid-Chromatography Mass Spectrometry. She found that some levels of smaller, broken down gluten, gliadin and hordein molecules were in fact far higher than shown in ELISA results. Colgrave also argues that the anti bodies used by ELISA are "non specific ...and have different affinities for the different classes of gluten". In plain English - she is arguing that ELISA doesn't pick up some of the newer, smaller parts of gluten and doesn't pick up every type of gluten that could cause a reaction. 


However, some gluten free beers did have consistently low levels of gluten when tested by the same, more robust method. There is an interesting article in Forbe's magazine which outlines the rough findings of Colgraves study here

You can find the abstract of the study in much more detail here 


Brewer's Clarex is a chemical that was traditionally used to get rid of the 'haze' in beer, but has been found to break down molecules of gluten, gliadin and hordein. DSM - the makers of Brewer's Clarex recently tested a sample of beers using ELISA and Colgrave's Mass Spectrometry method. They found that the Mass Spectrometry results confirmed that using Brewer's Clarex meant that "the toxic epitopes [strings of gluten]...are wiped out" meaning that the reaction-inducing gluten is wiped out. So - how come Colgrave is finding gluten and associated proteins in some gluten free beers but DSM aren't, when they have used the same testing equipment?


My guess is that Colgrave searched for more types of gluten that are much more specific to Barley/Hordein and DSM did a generic gluten/gliadin/barley test but please be aware that this is a 'best guess'.  I have contacted both Colgrave and DSM to clarify their methods and findings and am also working with a brewery to try and clear the haze. 


Importantly - most beers that are labelled as 'gluten free' in the UK will openly highlight 'Barley' as an allergen in their beers list of ingredients. This is because some individuals react to parts of barley that aren't part of gluten/gliadin and so are not routinely tested for.


Interestingly, because of the risk of gluten not being detected-  Canada's TTB and Health Canada no longer allow beers tested with ELISA to be labelled 'gluten free'. In the US, the FDA requires beer using gluten removed barley or wheat to be classed as 'Gluten Removed' with clear warnings of potential gluten levels for Coeliacs. Beers testing below 20ppm with ELISA can still be labelled as 'Gluten Free' under UK and European labeling laws. In conclusion - there seems to be no concrete evidence that 'Gluten Free' beers using Brewer's Clarex to remove the gluten and ELISA to test it are safe for Coeliacs in the UK because of the risk of potentially undetected gluten, and untested  Barley molecules. 



Which beers can I drink as a Coeliac?



As a Coeliac, the best thing to do is to opt for beers that are made from alternative grains, but these are quite rare - I have only been able to find two breweries that make them - Green's and Black Storm Brewery who recently bought Autumn Brewing Co). If you are willing risk the 'ELISA effect' you could opt for beers that use brewing methods, or a mixture of Brewers Clarex and brewing methods to eliminate gluten to <10ppm or 'gluten absent'. However, please be aware that I cannot guarantee that those testing as 'gluten absent' are accurately tested for gluten, gliadin or barley and are therefore safe for Coeliacs. 


Beer from Alternative Grains




Great Discovery Amber

Gold Dry Hopped lager

Grand India IPA


Black Storm Brewery


Alt Brew Number 1 - Bavarian Pilsner

Alt Brew Number 2 - English Pale Ale

Alt Brew Number 3 - Dark Roast Stout


'Gluten Absent' Beers

* Bellfield Lawless Village IPA and Pilsner - brewed to remove gluten at each stage of the process, tested as gluten absent for gluten, and <10ppm for Gliadin using ELISA

* Celia - did not receive a breakdown of ELISA test, website states <5ppm for gluten

* Daura Damm/ Marzen - brewed to remove gluten and treated with an unspecified enzyme, tests as <3ppm using ELISA

* Mikkeler Hotel Henri Saison - tested as <5ppm for Gliadin using ELISA




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