Distilled Alcohol and Gluten, Part 1

Is distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains, e.g. vodka or whiskey made from barely or rye gluten free? The short answer is yes.

I believe that they are gluten free based on the fact that process of distillation separates the gluten protein from the vapors used to make alcohol. My certainty had been called into question recently when two trusted gluten-free friends and a bartender warned against distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains. So, I have done some investigating to understand why there is confusion about distilled alcohol. Please read on for more information so that you may make an informed choice for yourself.

The Facts As We Know Them Now

  • Distillation is a process that removes gluten from liquor. In a complete distillate gluten is effectively removed from the vapor that is used for alcohol production.
  • Evidence that distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains is gluten free comes from research done by a well-known researcher JA Campbell as well as the permanent exemption from gluten-containing grains distillates from allergen labeling by the European Food Safety Authority.
  • Tests done by JA Campbell validated that complete gluten peptides (peptide is another word for protein) are not found in the final distillate of an alcohol from a gluten-containing grain.
  • However, IF the alcohol was not completely distilled, which would be exceedingly rare and unintentional, then the final distillate could contain gluten peptide fragments, which are broken apart pieces of the gluten protein.
  • Additionally, there are no published reports using competitive R5 ELISA (which is the test used to measure gluten peptide fragments) to document whether or not distilled alcohol contains gluten peptide fragments.
  • The flavorings and colorings used in distilled liquors generally do not contain gluten.

Conflicting Positions? Perhaps Not.

There are three main organizations that provide guidelines on the gluten-free diet,  the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA) and The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

GIG and AND clearly assert that distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains is gluten free, even though validated tests have not been published. GIG and AND assume distilled alcohol to be gluten free based on the process of distillation and the lack of evidence or reason to believe that gluten would be in the final distillate.

The CSA’s position is less clear. The CSA eliminates these alcohols from the initial stage of their gluten free diet, but allows for them in the later stages of the gluten free diet, and this position, in my opinion, seems to create confusion.

To understand if CSA, GIG and AND have conflicting opinions I contacted the CSA, GIG and leaders in the field directly.

From the Celiac Sprue Association

Per written communication from Shelley Aspin, MA, RD, LMNT, Nutrition Program Coordinator for the CSA,

“CSA promotes a 3-Step approach (Foundation, Expansion, and Maintenance) for people with newly diagnosed celiac disease.  In Step-1, the Foundation Step, risk-free, naturally gluten-free choices are encouraged to foster healing.  By definition alcohols derived from gluten sources are not inherently gluten-free, and as with any other food or beverage not meeting the criteria CSA suggests delayed introduction.  This type of product is better introduced during Step-2, the Expansion Step.”

“In regards to distilled products, CSA assumes these are gluten-free, however, they do not meet the criteria for Step 1 of the diet (inherently gluten-free).”

Per verbal communication with Mary Schluckebier, Executive Director of CSA,

Mary stated that “it easier to eliminate distilled alcohol from the initial stage than to talk about whether or not distilled alcohol is gluten free”. I expressed my concern that this may create the perception that distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains may not be safe for those with celiac or that they may not be gluten-free, and she stated, “We have never said that”. She further stated that they have found that some people may not be able to tolerate distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains, but they don’t why.

From the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Per Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, researcher, leader in evaluating the gluten-free status of foods and author of  many books including the book Easy Gluten Free, where you can find this excerpt:

“According to the AND, wine and pure distilled spirits, such as vodka, whisky, gin, brandy, rum, and tequila, are considered gluten-free. Certain classes of wines and distilled spirits may contain added colorings and flavorings. Brandy, rum, tequila, and whiskey may be colored with caramel. Cordials and liqueurs may have flavorings and colorings added after distillation. Depending on the type of alcohol, colorings and flavorings may or may not have to be declared on the alcohol label. You probably shouldn’t concern yourself with either caramel color or flavoring. As stated previously, caramel may be made from wheat starch hydrolysates or barley malt but is most likely made from corn. Even if caramel is made from wheat or barley, it is unlikely to contain much, if any, gluten*. A flavoring agent used in a cordial or liqueur probably won’t be derived from wheat, barley, or rye. If you have any concerns, contact the manufacturer.”

GIG supports the statement above and did not have anything to add.

Bottom Line:

CSA, GIG and AND seem to be in agreement that distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains are gluten free. CSA makes this a little confusing but ultimately their guidelines allow for distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains on a gluten free diet.

For those of you following a gluten free diet because you are intolerant or sensitive, do you include distilled alcohol from gluten-containing grains?

Part 2 of this discussion will come tomorrow regarding the new rules about gluten free label claims that are sure to create a lot of confusion.

*Regarding caramel color, most experts in the field consider caramel coloring to be gluten free even when derived from wheat. In the very rare instance that wheat is used to make caramel, caramel is so highly processed that there is no possibility of any gluten remaining in it. Caramel color may be added to an alcohol to make a dark rum or whiskey dark.

Material on this blog is provided for informational purposes only. It is general information that may not apply to you as an individual, and is not a substitute for personalized nutrition or health advice or healthcare. Never disregard medical advice or delay seeking medical care because of something you have read or accessed through this website.

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