If you suffer from gluten intolerance or celiac disease, even trace amounts of gluten can cause digestive upset. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Although obvious sources of gluten, such as bread and pasta, can be avoided, less obvious sources, such as food additives, make eating completely gluten-free challenging. Vinegar is an ingredient that may confuse you if you suffer from gluten intolerance. The process by which vinegar is processed and what is used as its base determines whether or not it is safe for your gluten-free diet.
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune condition in which consuming any bit of gluten can cause the body to attack the villi that line the small intestine and enable nutrient absorption and food processing. As these villi are damaged, you may suffer malnutrition and eventually succumb to cancer, osteoporosis or other autoimmune conditions. Even if you are gluten intolerant without an official diagnosis of celiac disease, you may experience severe gastrointestinal distress after eating gluten.
Vinegar is made by fermenting an ingredient and distilling the resulting alcohol. Many types of vinegar exist, most of which contain no wheat. These include apple cider, balsamic, rice wine, lavender, orange and sherry. Distilled white vinegar in the United States is made from corn, not wheat, as some celiac patients mistakenly believe. Distilling also ensures that vinegar has no gluten because the process filters out large protein molecules, including gluten.
According to Gluten-Free Living, malt vinegar is not distilled and it is made from "an infusion of barley malt or cereals," which contain gluten. You should avoid malt vinegar or any food containing it. In addition, some vinegars have flavoring or other ingredients added after distillation, so be sure to check the ingredient label for any added gluten.
Some strict gluten-free dieters still avoid vinegar to be safe, despite assurances from major health organizations such as the American Dietetic Association and the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. These cautious dieters fear that something could go awry during the distilling process and that gluten molecules could still sneak through. Some celiac sufferers report reactions to distilled white vinegar, but it is impossible to say whether the vinegar or another food item was the source of the reaction. Finally, there is no 100 percent guarantee that wheat was not used as the original fermentation product, so some celiac sufferers play it safe and avoid all vinegar and vinegar-containing products.