Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Paleo Primer on “Gluten-free” Beer

For many people, beer is the big stumbling block when considering the Paleo diet.

“Can I drink beer?”, with a look of alarm, is the first response one hears (usually from men) when explaining it.

So finding a beer alternative becomes a pretty high priority, for most folks who decide they want to adopt the diet.

I recently encountered a new species of the genus “gluten-free beer” and it was an interesting experiment for me.

My last regular beer…

First, a little background.  Before going Paleo three years ago somewhat against my will, I was a connoisseur of micro-brews and single-malt Scotch, both of which are brewed from barley (generally).  In hindsight the fact that I avoided beers brewed from wheat (weissbeer, in the trade) because they made me feel “not right”, and the fact that the hangovers I got from drinking scotch or beer were far, far worse than from any other alcohol should have clued me in that something was amiss, but I just assumed that it was “normal”.  And it was, for me, but it was not good.

The first sign that something had changed in my diet in a permanent fashion was when I gave my stock of beer and scotch to a friend.  (That friend is now also pursuing a wheat-free diet.)  That gift was prompted by my last attempt to enjoy a regular beer, back when I was gauging my tolerance to wheat.  I wound up waking up in the middle of the night in agony with intestinal cramps.  Not fun; I haven’t had a regular beer since.

Shortly thereafter I realized that I wasn’t a freak: I discovered that Anheuser-Busch, the brewers of Budweiser, had a gluten-free beer, “made without wheat or barley”.  Huzzah!  Redbridge is brewed from sorghum and was introduced by AB in 2006. They were way ahead of the curve…  The taste is a bit different, however.  Within the range of microbrewery beers, I think, but I’m not mad about it.  The Beer Advocate rates it as average, but the user ratings are “poor”.

There are some other sorghum-based beers around, some are better than others.  One of the better ones I’ve found recently (courtesy of my local liquor store) is New Grist, which is a light, summery beer.  The Beer Advocate crowd, with brutal honesty, also gives it a “poor”, and one rater says:

“So hard to rate these gluten free beers.. to be honest they are all bad, but if they were the only option I'm sure they would be fine. This one has a light taste to it that might be good for a summer beer.”

That’s a little harsh.  I’ve given friends these gluten-free beers, and no-one’s made an issue out of it, most people’s reaction is “it’s fine”.

If you happen to be in Vermont, a local brewery called the Alchemist produces a beer called Celia (get it?) which is pretty good, it rises to a stellar “average” with the BA crew.  If you’ve wondered what a brewmaster would make if his wife couldn’t drink beer, this is your answer (she is gluten intolerant).

Sorghum beers solve the problem of gluten by making beer from a grain that doesn’t contain gluten.  But, as you may have gathered, the taste is different.  So it was with great interest that I recently discovered a new variety of “gluten-free” beer, which are brewed from barley, but reduce the gluten content during the brewing process.

I was recently in Nashville, Tennessee attending an open-mic night at a local bar, and had just given the waitress my usual “I’m allergic to wheat” speech when she mentioned that they had a gluten-free beer that they’d just picked up.  Cool!  I ordered a bottle, took a sip, and… Head rush. 

(I’m not actually allergic to wheat, but that’s the easiest way to get them to take it as seriously as I do.)

The first symptom I get when I eat something that contains wheat or barley is a head rush.  It happens within seconds, and may be related to this phenomenon: “Beer's Taste Alone Gets People a Little High”; although that study blames it on alcohol, not beer.  I don’t get the effect with any other alcohol-containing beverage, and I do get it when I eat something non-alcoholic that does contain wheat, like soy sauce.

Gluten-free Beer?
The mark of a gluten-free beer, in Europe

So I started looking all over the bottle for the “gluten-free” label.  There was none.  I went and spoke to the bartender and the manager, they assured me that the whole reason they’d picked up the brand was because it was gluten-free.  So I went back to my seat (the music hadn’t started yet) and got to work.

It turns out that they were right, and wrong, that this beer was gluten free. 

In Europe, a beer (or a food) can be labeled “gluten-free” if it contains less than 20 parts-per-million (ppm) of gluten.  This beer, Estrella Damm Daura, purports to contain only 6 ppm, and indeed, the beer’s web site states that it’s “A beer suitable for people with coeliac disease…” 

But the bottle in my hand didn’t have the gluten-free label on it.  Why not?

That’s a bit of a story.  It turns out that beer in the United States is regulated by the Department of the Treasury, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as you would expect.  For further confusion, hard cider (more about which later) does carry a gluten-free label.

The difference is a key one, and (for once) a very logical decision made by the TTB (PDF). (Although why this would be covered under the “Homeland Security Act of 2002” is a mystery… Was Al-Qaeda attempting to poison us with mislabeled gluten-free beer?)

“Currently, there is no FDA regulation that defines the term “gluten-free.” In the preamble to a final rule on the declaration of ingredients on food packaging published in the Federal Register of January 6, 1993 (58 FR 2850 at 2864), FDA advised that the term “gluten-free” could be used in the labeling of foods, provided that when such claim is used, it is truthful and not misleading. Generally, and absent regulations to the contrary, FDA stated that it would regard a claim that a food is “free” of a substance as false or misleading if the food contains that substance.”

The TTB looks to the FDA for guidance on the meaning of the term gluten-free.  Since it’s not defined, they decided that beers like Daura could not use the term gluten-free, since they’re not.  They’re gluten-reduced.  Close, but no cigar.  When Daura was originally launched, it carried a label that said gluten-free, but not any more.  So is it, or is not “suitable for people with coeliac disease”?

Back to the FDA:

“In 2004, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), (Public Law 108-282, Title II) was signed into law. Section 206 of FALCPA required the Secretary of Health and Human Services to issue a rule to define and permit the term “gluten-free” on the labeling of foods. Accordingly, on January 23, 2007, the FDA published a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register (72 FR 2795) proposing to define the term “gluten-free” for voluntary use in the labeling of foods. Under the proposed FDA rule, a product may be labeled as gluten-free if it does not contain any of the following:

  1. “An ingredient that is a prohibited grain (wheat, barley, rye, or crossbred hybrids of those grains);
  2. “An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has not been processed to remove gluten;
  3. “An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has been processed to remove gluten if use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 ppm or more gluten in the food; or
  4. “20 ppm or more gluten.”

That makes sense.  Now under that ruling, you’d think that Estrella would have gotten back the right to label Daura as gluten-free, right?  All they have to do is prove that their beer has less than 20ppm of gluten…

Well, that appears to be the sticking point.  The FDA hasn’t issued a final definition of “gluten-free” that would include foods made from wheat or barley but with the gluten removed, because:

“FDA recognizes that for some food matrices (e.g., fermented or hydrolyzed foods), there are no currently available validated methods that can be used to accurately determine if these foods contain < 20 ppm gluten. In such cases, FDA is considering whether to require manufacturers of such foods to have a scientifically valid method that will reliably and consistently detect gluten at 20 ppm or less before including a ‘gluten-free’ claim in the labeling of their foods….

“…In other words, a scientifically valid test is one that consistently and reliably does what it is intended to do.”

And we don’t have one.  So:

“Many alcohol beverage products subject to the FAA Act are produced without any ingredients that contain gluten. For example, a wine fermented from grapes, or a vodka distilled from potatoes, may be “gluten-free” if the producer used good manufacturing practices, took adequate precautions to prevent cross-contamination, and did not use additives, yeast, or storage materials that contained gluten. Under this interim policy, TTB will allow the use of a “gluten-free” claim in the labeling and advertising of such products. As always, it will be the responsibility of the importer or bottler of the product to ensure that the claim is truthful and accurate. TTB has further determined that it would be inherently misleading for products produced from grains containing gluten or their derivatives to make a “gluten-free” claim or a claim of specific gluten content levels absent a means to verify the accuracy of that statement through scientifically validated methods or other reliable means as might be revealed through FDA rulemaking.”

Regulatory bodies have many issues, but it’s tough to argue with the stance TTB is taking: prove it’s gluten-free, or don’t say it is.

Given all that, did I take a second sip of the bottle of Daura?

I did.  I finished the bottle  The things I do for science.

I felt like crap.  Got the droopy, tired feeling that I get after the head rush.  That lasted for an hour or so.  And it’s obvious enough that people ask me if I’m feeling OK.  Then I got some intestinal cramps, minor ones, but still…  I did not get diarrhea the next day, so that’s a plus.  Now mind you, this was the first barley-beer I’ve had in almost three years.

Then, a few days later, I got an asthma attack, when running a race.  I had more of an attack that afternoon, when mountain biking.  A couple of days later, I got a massive pimple on my nose.  I haven’t had an asthma attack in warm weather in years, so long I can’t remember when.  I haven’t gotten a zit in years, since before going paleo.  With my daughter, I can tell how much wheat she’s been eating by her skin and her allergies (which have continued to be minimal).  So both those effects are a red flag to me.

Now you might say that asthma’s to be expected, it’s spring time.  But I’ve not had a hint of allergies since then, even though it’s gotten warmer since, and everything is now blooming.  There are tons of anecdotal reports of exercise-induced asthma resolving on a gluten-free diet, and:

“The recent literature underlines the frequency of wheat allergy in exercise-induced anaphylaxis. The initial symptom reported by our patient was an allergic reaction related to exercise that progressed secondarily toward chronic urticaria without a direct relationship to exercise. Through the positivity of the oral challenge test and the effectiveness of the elimination diet for wheat flour, we documented the role that wheat allergy played in provoking his symptoms, both chronic urticaria and asthma. The elements that initially led us to the hypothesis of an allergy to wheat flour were based on the frequent implication of wheat flour in triggering exercise-induced anaphylaxis and on the analysis of the food survey, which revealed a large consumption of wheat flour.”

Urticaria is a skin condition.

There are, as it turns out, lots of other accounts of people having bad reactions to Daura.  But some folks report that they’re fine.  This is not surprising.  As Chris Kresser pointed out recently:

“Here’s the crucial thing to understand: Celiac disease is characterized by an immune response to a specific epitope of gliadin (alpha-gliadin) and a specific type of transglutaminase (tTG-2). But we now know that people can (and do) react to several other components of wheat and gluten — including other epitopes of gliadin (beta, gamma, omega), glutenin, WGA and deamidated gliadin – as well as other types of transglutaminase, including type 3 (primarily found in the skin) and type 6 (primarily found in the brain). (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

“This is a huge problem because conventional lab testing for CD and of gluten intolerance only screens for antibodies to alpha-gliadin and transglutaminase-2. If you’re reacting to any other fractions of the wheat protein (e.g., beta-gliadin, gamma-gliadin or omega-gliadin), or any other types of transglutaminase (e.g., type 3 or type 6), you’ll test negative for CD and gluten intolerance no matter how severely you’re reacting to wheat.”

Wheat-Germ Agglutinin (WGA) is toxic to 100% of people; and there’s Lord knows what else.

So it might be OK for celiac disease (although that remains to be seen) but it’s not OK for me.  I think that if you have any reaction to any wheat-related grain (wheat, barley, rye), you shouldn’t ever eat any of it.  But it’s a difficult thing to figure out what products made from wheat still contain a hazardous amount of wheat.

I just learned that my favorite vodka, Kettle One, is made from wheat.  It was, ironically, a martini made with Kettle One vodka that introduced me to the notion that the hangovers I got from beer or scotch were not from alcohol.  (Meaning I could drink enough alcohol to give me a hangover, but it wasn’t nearly so bad as the wheat poisoning I’d been suffering from.)  And I’ve continued to be able to drink Kettle One, and will continue to do so.  I have no adverse reaction to it whatsoever.  Vodka’s so purified that it’s pretty much just water and alcohol, but be mindful if you try it.

Woodchuck Cider

So I’ll pass on the Estrella Damm Daura, thanks.  And you know what?  It wasn’t all that great.  (Despite winning awards as “Best Gluten-Free Beer”, the critics at the Beer Advocate rate it a slightly higher “average” than the gluten-free beers discussed before.)  Drinking that beer made me realize that I much prefer the hard cider I generally consume as an alcoholic beverage.  I really don’t miss beer that much, after all.  I certainly don’t miss the side-effects.

(Estrella makes another beer, by the way, which is called Estrella Damm.  That beer is not claimed to be gluten-free, only the Estrella Damm Daura goes through whatever wizardry they’re using to attempt to remove the gluten.  So if you want to try your own experiment, make sure you get the right beer!  Hat-tip to GlutenFreeBeer.org for the info from the TTB.)