In 2008, I participated in an allergy elimination diet. A friend of mine did it to figure out why she had heartburn, so I thought, what the heck. Maybe I’ll figure out why I have so many headaches. It was a grueling, arduous six-week process that required me to give up my favorite food (cheese) while being plagued by even more headaches thanks to that cold-turkey caffeine withdrawal. I did discover that a build-up of histamines was the cause of my distress and I just needed to cool it on many of my go-to foods (damn you cheese, tomatoes, pepperoni, and beer, all the components of my dinner-of-choice). I also discovered what a horrible place the world is when you’re trying to survive on allergen-free foods.
I had to cook 100 percent of my meals while avoiding anything social, like going out to eat, grabbing a coffee with a friend, or enjoying a beer at happy hour. It basically led me to become so depressed near the end of the diet that I started surviving on nothing but almond butter on rice cakes. It was a great way to lose some weight, but I also pretty much lost the will to live. Life without my favorite foods just wasn’t living.
Luckily, life has gotten better for people with food allergies in the last decade. Back then, I had to scour the grocery store shelves for gluten-free crackers. Today, there’s an entire aisle dedicated to gluten-free products. No more meticulously reading of the ingredient label because everything on that aisle screams “GLUTEN-FREE” – including a few products that wouldn’t possibly contain gluten, like olive oil and soda water. But sometimes gluten can be sneaky, as is apparently the case with beer.
It turns out there are three types of gluten-free beer. True gluten-free beer is brewed with rice, buckwheat, corn, or sorghum. These beers don’t contain any barley at all. An argument could be made that these are not technically beer at all, as the German purity law Reinheitsgebot proclaims that beer is made water, barley, and hops. I suppose that’s beside the point. Then, there are the “gluten-reduced” beers. After brewing their gluten-juice, some companies remove the gluten from their brews using secret processes that involve centrifuges or filters. If they end up with less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten, these manipulated beers are technically considered gluten-free.
To make things even more complicated, the FDA has a caveat: Any product that originally contained wheat, rye, or barley can’t be labeled gluten-free – even if they have less than the legal limit. So a Stone Delicious IPA or New Belgium Glutiny Pale Ale (which use processes to remove gluten) can only be labeled “gluten-reduced,” because that’s what they are.
Which brings me to the Corona, the third type of “gluten-free” beer. Corona and other light beers (like Bud Light Lime and Heineken) are technically gluten-free. As it turns out, many of these beers have less than 20 ppm gluten, even though they’re made with barley, and the companies are making no attempt to reduce the gluten content of their beers. So, how the heck do they test so low on the gluten meters?
You might think we can’t trust these tests, and if you really have celiac disease, you’ll probably steer clear of these beers anyway. The consequences of ingesting gluten are not worth it to gamble on the test’s ability to reliably detect gluten. But really, we should probably reconsider whether we’re still interested in drinking these light beers. After all, consider what it means when the intent isn’t to create a gluten-free beer, and yet they don’t even contain enough barley to register above the legal limit…
If you love your light beer, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but they’re brewed with cheap adjuncts (like corn and rice) to save money instead of being all barley. Then, they’re treated with an enzyme to remove extra carbohydrates (because that sounds totally natural) before being diluted with water by 4 or 5 percent. They contain undetectable amounts of gluten because they’re literally a watered-down version of a real beer. You may as well buy a craft beer and turn it into two light beers, because it’s essentially the same.
At this point, you’re probably wondering if this is a tirade against gluten-free people, Big Beer, or light beers in general, because I’m offending people who love things in all of those categories. Well, this turned into all three because I apparently love to rant, so let’s at least end on something positive. If you’re among the world of allergen sufferers: Reach for the best beer you can. If that happens to be Corona, so be it, but just know that it’s not actually free of the thing you think you suffer from.
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.