Buying Something Gluten-Free? It's Probably Not Fully Gluten-Free...
Millions of Americans suffer from celiac disease, which is an allergy to gluten. The gluten-free food industry in America and Western Europe is worth around $3.5 billion.
Widmer Bros. brewing, is among a handful of breweries in the Portland area that are crafting gluten-free beers. Now, Widmer is in a little bit of hot water with the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau ("TTB"). The issue is over the ingredients in Widmer's gluten-free brew. Here's an excerpt from the Willamette Week about the issue:
According to the TTB, wine, beer or distilled spirits “made from ingredients that contain gluten (cannot) be labeled as ‘gluten-free.’” This could spell trouble for Widmer, which has invested significant time and money in a new gluten-free beer.
Only a few months ago, Widmer Bros., a division of Craft Brew Alliance (CBA), the nation’s ninth’s largest brewing company, released Omission Gluten Free Lager and Gluten Free Pale Ale. Widmer is selling the beer locally, and plans roll it out nationwide soon.
Here’s the kicker: Unlike other gluten-free beers, which are typically made from sorghum and usually taste nothing like actual beer, Omission is made from traditional ingredients, including barley. The beers are then deglutenized enzymatically. The result is a beer that tastes like beer—unlike so many competitors—yet has allegedly imperceptible levels of gluten. Not zero gluten, just almost none, not unlike caffeine in decaf coffee or alcohol in non-alcoholic beer. Widmer isn’t the first to use this process; it's just the first to do it commercially in the U.S. Development began six years ago and researched and tested full-throttle for the last two.
Adopting guidelines set forth by organizations within the World Health Organization, the FDA has said food labeled as gluten-free cannot exceed 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. Omission beers are at 5-6 ppm. As a point of reference, Widmer Drifter Pale Ale comes back at 50-100 ppm.
The issue appears to be that, since Widmer starts with ingredients that contain gluten, and then remove it later in the process, the TTB says that Widmer's brew cannot be labeled as gluten-free.
It seems a little odd that this is an issue. If you look at other type of products, caffeine-free coffee still has traces of caffeine. Alcohol-free beer still has traces of alcohol. This beer comes in well under the standard for a product to be labeled gluten-free. That also means that thousands of products that are labeled gluten-free still contain trace amounts of gluten.
I don't believe that Widmer is in the wrong here. One can only hope that they win this fight against the TTB