You might think the stakes are high when you order a cocktail and hope it’s worth the $14 you paid. But that’s nothing compared to what people with Celiac or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity face every time they go in for a sip of an unfamiliar drink. For those whose bodies can’t handle gluten for one reason or another, ingesting it can cause gastrointestinal distress like diarrhea or constipation, migraines, fatigue, breakouts, or—for those with Celiac—higher risk of developing cancer. So maybe don’t be so peeved about that $14 rip off.
There’s a lot of false information floating around the internet about gluten at the bar. To make sure those with gluten-related conditions can drink in peace, we talked to Emily Luxford—a registered dietitian, owner of Luxford Nutrition and a member of the Celiac Disease Foundation board of directors—to learn just which drinks are truly gluten (and worry) free. Luxford explains that the FDA doesn’t require alcohol to be labeled gluten-free or even an ingredient list (which can give some hint to the gluten content of food items that lack specific gluten-free labeling), so there’s usually no way to tell if a bottle is gluten-free if the brand doesn’t advertise it prominently (the FDA and TTB are currently working to standardize labeling on gluten). So the best way to protect yourself from gluten is to get educated.
While Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and contaminated oats (oats are naturally gluten-free but we contaminate them in how we process them), Luxford explains that few drinks created from these grains contain gluten.
“For the general population, all distilled alcohol is fine, unless [distillers] were to add some sort of flavoring agent or some sort of item that might have gluten in it, but that’s very rare,” Luxford says. “Once the alcohol goes through the distillation process and becomes pure alcohol, the gluten content is negligible and doesn’t affect those populations [with gluten-related conditions].” Trace amounts of gluten may remain after distillation, but as long as that amount is less than 20 parts per million (ppm), the FDA limit, the product is considered gluten-free and safe to consume. Wine is generally safe as well.
Beer, on the other hand, is a whole keg of worms. Luxford breaks down beer into three categories: traditional beer, beer that’s made from cereals that don’t contain gluten, and beer that has been modified to remove the gluten. While traditional beers made from wheat, barley and rye are obviously out, Luxford also suggests avoiding the modified variety because there have been no conclusive studies on them and many people still report issues after drinking them. Beers made from non-gluten cereals are the way to go for gluten-sensitive beer lovers. Anything made from millet, rice, sorghum, buckwheat or corn will work.
This is about the point where we reach the limits of our scientific knowledge and enter the theoretical. Dig around on the internet and you’ll find plenty of people with gluten sensitivity that report symptoms after drinking pure alcohol distilled from grains. This probably doesn’t mean gluten is getting through distillation, but Luxford lays out a few possible explanations for the trouble.
For one thing, like other food sensitivities, those with gluten sensitivity may be susceptible to other ingredients as well. Another possibility is that the damage done to someone’s intestines during years of eating gluten with an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity may make them extra sensitive to the miniscule amount of gluten below 20 ppm. Finally, alcohol could exacerbate “leaky gut,” a condition that’s disputed among physicians but may make the intestines more permeable to harmful gluten and other nutrients. No matter the cause of distress from ostensibly gluten-free products, Luxford suggests those feeling symptoms after drinking some pure whiskey ought to consult directly with their doctors.
While all of these general guidelines are a good start to understanding gluten in your booze, it can be hard to find accurate information about specific brands. When in doubt, Luxford suggests sticking to tried and true gluten-free brands like Tito's Vodka, Bacardi and Bombay Sapphire.