As a protein found in grains like wheat and barley, gluten is also present in most beer. The gluten levels in beer depend on the brewing method used, and thus vary from one brand to the next. For a beer to be considered gluten-free, it must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
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What Is Gluten?
According to the Food and Drug Administration, gluten is a collection of proteins that are naturally-occurring, not just in grains of wheat, but also in barley and rye. Using the flour of these respective grains for cooking and baking means that gluten is present in commonly-eaten foods such as breads, cakes and pastas, as well as in alcoholic beverages like beer.
Read more: 9 Foods You Didn't Know Contain Gluten
Researchers behind a March 2017 review published in the Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology explain that gluten is made up of hundreds of proteins like glutenin and gliadin. It is these proteins that act as the major form of energy storage in wheat grains, which, according to a July 2019, study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, are only present in the starchy endosperm of grain cells. The primary function of gluten proteins in the grain is to promote seedling development in the process of germination.
The function of gluten significantly changing when it's time to be cooked. Michigan State University Extension explains that it is the presence of gluten that is responsible for the shape and texture of a loaf of bread. Gluten's ability to withstand high temperatures means it's a heat-stable protein that helps foods retain their structure when cooked. It acts as a sort of "glue" during the baking process, to hold the bread together as it bakes.
Read more: Gluten Intolerance and Sourdough Bread
However, it's not just food that contains gluten. Because of its ability to act as a binding agent, the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains that gluten is also used as an additive in processed foods, medicines, cosmetics, supplements and vitamins.
Gluten Content in Beer
Beer is a popular alcoholic beverage that contains gluten, B vitamins and minerals like phosphorus and magnesium. Dried grains are first mashed and boiled, resulting in a sweetened mixture known as a sugar wort. The sugar wort is then mixed with yeast and fermented resulting in a liquid — beer — that is alcoholic in nature.
Read more: Blue Moon Beer Nutrition Facts
According to a February 2013 study published in PLOS One, researchers found that the levels of gluten in beer varied from one brand to the next, and depended on the initial grain used. Grains that are frequently used in the process of beer making include barley, wheat and rye.
The FDA explains that the gluten content in beer must be less than 20 ppm for it to be considered gluten-free. So, just as in the case of bread and cakes made from wheat flour, the gluten levels in beer can have a significant impact on individuals living with gluten intolerance.
Most commercial beers are made from barley, which contains a collection of gluten molecules specific only to barley and known as hordeins. The gluten content in beers made from barley may vary, from approximately 19 ppm, to 45 ppm, according to the results of the PLOS One study_._ For beers made with wheat, the gluten content in beer is much higher, averaging 40,800 ppm.
Effects of Gluten
For people who don't have a gluten sensitivity, or celiac disease, the gluten content in beer is not a bad thing. In fact, according to a February 2018, article published in Gastroenterology & Hepatology, researchers found that a gluten-free diet may have adverse effects in individuals without gluten-related diseases.
Food products containing gluten also provide a lot of nutrition and health benefits. Seitan, a vegetarian-friendly alternative to meat, is made entirely from gluten. A 1-ounce serving of seitan contributes 42 percent of the recommended daily dose of protein for an individual, while remaining low-calorie but rich in minerals like iron, selenium and phosphorus.
Read more: Side Effects of Starting a Gluten-Free Diet
Along with gluten, wheat flour is also rich in protein and fiber. An ounce of wheat flour contains 3 grams of flour, while an ounce of gluten-free flour, like rice flour, has just 1.3 grams of fiber. Wheat flour is also richer in minerals like iron, folate and calcium, whereas gluten-free flours and foods are usually deficient in these minerals, explains the researchers behind the Gastroenterology & Hepatology article.
Gluten may also benefit an individual's overall gut health by being a prebiotic. Prebiotics help bacteria present in the gut to flourish, by being a source of nutrition. A healthy gut decreases the chances of inflammation, and the incidence of colon cancer.
Gluten Intolerance and Celiac Disease
The Office of Women's Health explains that approximately 3 million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease caused by the ingestion of products with gluten. Around the world, it is estimated that 1 in every 100 people is affected by celiac disease.
The body responds to this condition by producing antibodies that attack the lining of the small intestine when gluten is consumed. As a result, absorption of key nutrients like iron and calcium is inhibited, eventually leading to osteoporosis, anemia, type 1 diabetes and cancer of the small intestine.
According to the U.S. Library of Medicine, symptoms of celiac disease include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight Loss
- Decreased appetite
Not all individuals with a sensitivity to gluten have celiac disease. Instead, their body may just be intolerant to gluten, and may not produce the severe immune response seen in individuals with celiac disease. Gluten-sensitive people, however, also benefit from a diet that avoids foods containing gluten.
Approximately 25 percent of people with celiac disease, as well as gluten-sensitive individuals, are also affected by dermatitis herpetiformis, a chronic itchy and blistering rash. The rash commonly occurs on the elbows, back and knees, and significantly improves when a strict gluten-free diet is imposed.
Adopting a gluten-free diet may also lead to weight loss. A diet rich in gluten is filled with carbs like bread and pasta, which can lead to weight gain if consumed in excess. Switching to a gluten-free diet means eating fewer carbohydrate-rich foods, which can lead to weight loss.
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- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Gluten and Food Labeling”
- Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology: “What is Gluten?"
- Michigan State University Extension: “What is Gluten?"
- Molecules: "Beer Molecules and Its Sensory and Biological Properties: A Review”
- Frontiers in Nutrition: “What Is Gluten—Why Is It Special?"
- PLOS One: "Measuring Hordein (Gluten) in Beer – A Comparison of ELISA and Mass Spectrometry"
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Questions and Answers on the Gluten-Free Food Labeling Final Rule"
- Office on Women’s Health: "Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Celiac Disease - Sprue"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Dermatitis Herpetiformis"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Celiac Disease"
- Gastroenterology & Hepatology: "Health Benefits and Adverse Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet in Non–Celiac Disease Patients”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Gluten Sensitivity"