Wednesday, October 31, 2012

LIQUID EDUCATION: GLUTEN FREE, WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN AND WHAT REALLY IS GLUTEN FREE?

More and more people are looking for gluten free foods these days. There is a lot of confusion as to what and why this is the case. Essentially the understanding of gluten toxicity and the body’s inability to process certain proteins is yet to be fully understood. What is clear is that there are many people turning to a gluten free diet, both for actual symptomatic conditions and for life-style decisions.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Any foods that contain these products or by-products of these ingredients will contain gluten. Most common literature uses the base of 20 ppm (parts per million) as the threshold for gluten free, but there is no standard set by the FDA on the term ‘Gluten Free’, so the term is used by manufacturers in different ways. Congress actually set a law in 2004, which was supposed to require the FDA to establish these standards by 2011; that deadline came and went without an outline being established.

The problem is two-fold. First, there is no clear understanding of what causes gluten toxicity and/or gluten related disorders in some individuals, and so the distinction between a person who is predisposed to the condition, verses a person with an actual disease is not clear. Second, that it is challenging to establish ‘gluten free’ foods to a zero or trace amount level as foods that may seem to fall in the gluten free camp may pick up trace amounts of gluten, depending on where they have been produced. Food companies obviously want to avoid the impact of litigation from inaccurate labeling, as well as the cost of separating production and processing facilities or equipment.

 What Beverages are and are not gluten free?

SODA: Many of the top commercially made sodas are listed as gluten free to 20 parts per million. This includes the long list of sodas offered by the two largest companies: Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co.

JUICE: 100% Fruit juices are considered gluten free. This includes the most common bar/restaurant juices, such as orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit. There are reports that certain citrus juices can cause reactions but it is relatively rare and usually from mixed fruit juices that may have other additives. Fruit ‘drinks’ can also contain non-fruit additives, so caution should be taken and a careful review of the ingredients list should be done before use. When in doubt, stick with 100% fruit juices.

COFFEE & TEA: regular coffee and teas are gluten free, but flavored coffees, coffee drinks, and flavored teas, including herbal, may contain gluten. These should be avoided if you are not certain of the ingredients list.

DAIRY: Milk and natural milk products are gluten free. Flavored milks such as chocolate and vanilla drinks may contain gluten and caution should be taken. Malted milk beverages are not gluten free as malt is derived from barley. Milk substitutes such as soy, rice, almond milks may or may not be gluten free and caution should be taken by checking the ingredients list or checking with the manufacturer. Ice cream may or may not contain ingredients that have gluten, such as cookie chunks. Most cheese is safe, except washed cheeses that may have been exposed to beer. Repackaged cheeses may have been processed in store where the controls for contamination will not be as strictly monitored; these should be avoided. Yogurt is generally gluten free except those with nuts or granola added. Eggs and butter are gluten free; most but not all margarine is gluten free.

Gluten-Free Alcoholic Beverages 

BEER: except where specifically noted, all beer contains gluten, either from the use of barley as a grain or from barley derived enzymes. Some producers make gluten free beer, which is safe and becoming more and more available.

WINE: Wine should be safe (unless you're particularly sensitive). The use of wheat base fining agents is fairly rare and is being used less and less as time goes by. Some traditional producers will use a small amount of wheat paste to seal the cracks in wood-casks, but these sources will add less than 2 parts per million of gluten, not enough to notice for all but the most seriously sensitive. Find wines that are processed completely in stainless steel tanks and you should be safe.

ALCOHOL: Most common literature suggests that the distillation process removes all gluten. Anecdotal evidence though suggests that some people with gluten sensitivity do react to grain based spirits, such as whiskey. If this is the case there are plenty of options. Many spirits such as rum (cane) and tequila (agave) are made from non-grain sources, and are completely gluten free as long as there is no artificial flavoring/coloring added. Vodkas and Gins made from grapes, potatoes and other non-gluten grains are available on the market. Brandy, Cognac and Armagnac are gluten free as they are derived from grapes. 

MIXERS: Flavored and colored liqueurs should be avoided unless you check with the manufacturer, as these can contain additives and coloring agents that contain gluten. Pre-made mixers (aside from being cheap and lacking in authentic flavors) should be avoided unless a careful review of the ingredients list is done.

TOOLS: when making a drink that has been requested for a gluten free diner, all bar tools should be thoroughly cleaned before making the drink. This is done to avoid any cross contamination.

It is ultimately the responsibility of the guest to keep you informed of their food allergies and other conditions, but then it is your job to make sure that the guests requests are taken care of to the fullest and any questionable items are avoided. Being aware of what is and what is not gluten free is an important aspect of this service responsibility.


This article is intended as a simple guide for service industry persons and in no way should be used a medical reference. Always consult your physician about your medical conditions and symptoms.

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