By: Laura K. Allred, Ph.D., Regulatory Manager, Gluten Intolerance Group and Jeanne Reid, Marketing Manager, Gluten Intolerance Group
The desire to gather over good food and drink is a powerful urge for most people. For those who have adopted a gluten-free diet, finding ways to socialize is often complicated by the need for refreshments that don’t contain gluten. Members of the gluten-free community crave a sense of belonging and normalcy as much as anybody, but they don’t want to eat or drink anything that will make them sick. Makers of gluten-free craft beers and spirits can instill trust in consumers by following best practices for manufacturing gluten-free beverages, heeding recent changes in labeling requirements, and ensuring that their product is truly gluten-free.
The Gluten-Free Market for Alcoholic Beverages
Along with the rest of the gluten-free market, which exhibits a compound annual growth rate of 9.2% and is projected to reach $43 billion by 2027, demand for alcoholic beverages that are gluten-free is growing. The growth in the gluten-free market is driven by rising rates of various forms of gluten sensitivity, in addition to increased diagnosis of celiac disease.
While the market for gluten-free alcohol is comparable to that of other gluten-free products, consumers are particularly concerned about the safety of alcoholic beverages because so many of them are made from grains that contain gluten. Gluten-free consumers tend to be avid researchers who carefully read ingredient lists and doublecheck claims by visiting manufacturers’ websites. Given the choice, gluten-free consumers will always opt for products that are labeled gluten-free. What’s more, they’re often willing to pay more for a product that lives up to its gluten-free name.
Recent Rule Changes for Fermented and Distilled Beverages
For people with celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity, finding gluten-free products isn’t a dietary or wellness fad; it’s a requirement for remaining healthy and avoiding unpleasant physical symptoms. Brands getting into the gluten-free market need to understand that consumers with a medically prescribed diet will have more demands than the average consumer, and thus companies also need to go the extra mile to be transparent about their processes. You can reassure consumers by demonstrating you understand legal requirements for labeling gluten-free products, particularly recent rule changes by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
In 2020, the FDA responded to growing awareness that ELISA tests used to identify gluten proteins in foods and beverages don’t reliably detect residual gluten in fermented products. To address the issue, the FDA passed a new rule that requires manufacturers to start with gluten-free ingredients if they want to label products as gluten-free. At the same time, the FDA ruled that distilled products made from grains containing gluten could be labeled as gluten-free because distillation removes gluten proteins from the finished product. Following the lead of the FDA, the TTB released a ruling that allows makers of distilled beverages to advertise and label those products as gluten-free—even if they are made with grains that contain gluten.
Fermentation vs. Distillation What’s Involved?
To understand the rationale behind the FDA and TTB rulings, makers of craft beers and spirits need to be aware of the differences between fermentation and distillation. Typically, production of alcoholic beverages starts with fermentation. The fermentation process converts sugars into ethyl alcohol by breaking down substances like grain or potatoes through the introduction of yeasts, bacteria or other microorganisms. Beer usually starts with the fermentation of wheat or barley, two gluten-containing grains. Distilled spirits like whisky start with wheat or rye, while vodka can also be made with sugar cane or potatoes. Fermentation processes may break down some of the gluten proteins in beer or spirits, but it won’t remove all of them.
Distillation involves the boiling and condensation of fermented products to separate particulates in a liquid. During the distillation process, fermented liquid is heated up in a still. Under high temperatures, the most volatile compounds like alcohol become gases that rise to the top, while the heavier, less volatile compounds, including gluten, sink to the bottom. Once the alcohol is re-condensed and collected, the resulting product becomes protein- and gluten-free.
The Benefits of Third-Party Certification
The safest bet for gluten-free consumers is to look for products that are labeled or certified as gluten-free. The benefits of certifying alcoholic beverages as gluten-free are many. According to FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends, 29% of all shoppers look for certification claims on packaging for food and beverages—and this is particularly true for gluten-free consumers. These consumers look for brands that inspire confidence, which means that in addition to labeling products gluten-free, taking the step to get third-party certification, like that of the Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), goes a long way in building brand loyalty among the gluten-free community.
For one leading producer of vodka, obtaining GFCO certification and prominently displaying the certification logo on a paper sleeve attached to their bottles has made their product the vodka of choice for gluten-free consumers, who are very brand loyal. For manufacturers, certifying alcoholic beverages can be a real differentiator and selling point in a booming market.
Best Practices for Producing Gluten-Free Beer and Spirits
Producers of craft beers and spirits can capitalize on demand for gluten-free products, but it’s important for companies to follow the correct procedures for manufacturing these beverages. The process of producing gluten-free alcoholic beverages starts with sourcing gluten-free ingredients for products that are fermented but not distilled and ensuring that all gluten has been removed from products that are distilled. Manufacturers should also make sure their facilities are set up to avoid cross-contamination. One option is to produce alcohol in a dedicated gluten-free facility. While only 15 of the 8,000 breweries in the US are dedicated gluten-free facilities, this number has grown from just around three in 2016.
However, using a dedicated facility to produce gluten-free beverages isn’t your only option. Provided you follow best practices for preventing cross-contamination, there is no reason you can’t produce gluten-free products in a non-dedicated facility. You will need to take extra precautions by cleaning and testing any shared equipment, and some certifications, like GFCO, recommend using dedicated gluten-free equipment on production lines, simply because the equipment used to distill alcohol can be difficult to take apart and clean thoroughly. On the other hand, if you’re doing small batch production and you can get inside your equipment to clean and swab it, you can use shared equipment. You just need to verify that you’ve removed all traces of gluten before you make your next gluten-free batch.
As far as cleaning solutions go, you don’t need to spend top dollar on any specialty products. Standard soap and water will do. The important part of the process is swabbing to test for the presence of gluten or protein once you’ve cleaned your equipment. To demonstrate the effectiveness of your distillation process at removing proteins, GFCO recommends performing a lab procedure called an “amino acid analysis” that uses mass spectrometry to measure the amount of residual amino acids in distillates. A commercial lab can assist with the testing process, particularly for smaller distilleries that don’t have the equipment to conduct independent testing.
Things to Look Out for When Producing Gluten-Free Alcohol
If you are not making a distilled product—if you are, say, brewing beer—you should start with higher quality grains and do a visual inspection once they enter your facility to ensure they really are gluten-free. You should also beware of advertising “gluten-removed” beer to gluten-free consumers. Gluten-removed beer is manufactured using wheat, rye, barley or some other common gluten grain, and then, after fermentation, is typically treated enzymatically in a way that makes the product test negative for gluten. However, because testing does not reliably detect the presence of all residual proteins that people with celiac disease react to, the TTB has ruled that only beer that starts with gluten-free grains can be labeled as gluten-free. If you want to produce a gluten-free product, another option is hard seltzer. Although many of these products start with malt, which is most commonly made from barley, hard seltzer can also be produced using sugar to create an inherently gluten-free product.
Distillers of hard alcohol should also pay careful attention to any added flavorings: some of these ingredients include gluten and thus introduce the potential for cross-contamination. Manufacturers should also take care when using old barrels to season alcohol, because some of these barrels are sealed with wheat paste and may contain trace amounts of gluten.
As the gluten-free market continues to grow, more consumers are seeking options for gluten-free alcoholic beverages and many are willing to pay a premium for products they know they can trust. Starting with quality ingredients, adopting best practices for cleaning and testing your equipment and obtaining third-party certification, like GFCO, are three ways you can assure consumers that your gluten-free product is safe for consumption. Take the right steps, and your gluten-free alcoholic beers and spirits can become the next must-have brand for any occasion.
Laura K. Allred, Ph.D. is the regulatory manager for the Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO). Allred’s experience includes a background in immunology and eight years of directing a food testing laboratory and test kit manufacturing operation. The GFCO certification logo is the symbol of trust for the gluten-free community, with more than 60,000 products certified worldwide.
Jeanne Reid is the marketing manager for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group. Reid is a marketing and advertising professional with 20 years in the retail, restaurant, and CPG industries as well as cause-related efforts. A difficult family battle with celiac disease was an eye-opener for Reid and provided an opportunity for her to gain extensive knowledge and expertise on the gluten-free market.