Can Breweries Legally Say “Gluten-free” on a Beer Label?

Goodness, gracious, great balls of gluten!
Goodness, gracious, great balls of gluten!

Gluten has been all over the news these last few years. We’ll say up front, celiacs disease is no laughing matter for a ton of folks. That said, did you know that thanks to recent guidance from the FDA, a bottle of spring water can legally be labeled gluten-free? All’s fair in love and FDA-condoned labeling, we guess. Anyhow, following up on our posts earlier this week about beer-labeling regulations, we thought we’d circle back to let you know the state of gluten-free labeling. It’s pretty confusing.

TTB and FDA take a different approach to gluten, so you need to know your regulating authority: Malted Barley + Hops = TTB; No Malted Barley or No Hops = FDA.

If you’re regulated by FDA, in mid-2013, FDA gave you the “gluten-free” green light if your product contains less than 20ppm of gluten, a level it considers safe. This is the case, even if the product contains inherently glutinous ingredients (like barley).

On the other hand, TTB-regulated beer is not affected by this rule, and hasn’t yet adopted FDA’s approach. According to the governing TTB rule, you can’t use the word “gluten-free,” even if you’ve processed the product to bring gluten down to safe levels below 20ppm. So, that sets up a weird dilemma for folks like Omission/Widmer who brew with malted barley, but process their beers well below the 20ppm threshold. If they were regulated by FDA, like sorghum-based brewers are (see New Planet), they could say gluten-free. Instead, TTB makes them say something like this: “Product fermented from grains containing gluten and processed to remove gluten. The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.” Rolls off the tongue, right? So, as you can imagine, Omission was pretty happy when FDA introduced its new approach, and it’s likely TTB will eventually follow suit.

So, will all of this matter to most brewers? No, probably not. But, it’s worth noting that you might already be producing a beer that is within the safe gluten threshold. To point to big-box examples, reports show that Corona and Budweiser technically fall into that range. Still, unless you’re actually engaged in a process to remove gluten to safe levels, even though your gluten is within safe levels, you still can’t use those magic “gluten-free” words , under FDA’s or TTB’s standards. Whew!

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