The Government Can’t Decide If Whiskey Is Gluten Free

And other tales of “health claims” for alcohol

Mmmm, gluten-free whiskey.
This is the third of three articles about alcohol labeling laws. (Image Source)

Whiskey is gluten free. I know this primarily because of my sister, a medical professional who also happens to have celiac disease and enjoys a good highland single malt. I also know this because, once you start to think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Little ethanol molecules in a wash begin to boil off at about 174 degrees; a big protein composite like gluten won’t boil until things get much, much hotter. The gluten’s not exactly boiling off the bread in your 400-degree oven, right?

But this is not initially intuitive: whiskey, along with many vodkas and gins, comes from gluten-containing grains, after all. Back in the medieval era (that’s the early ‘00’s), before “celiac” and even “gluten-free” had entered the common lexicon, a good friend of mine used to say that the only whisky he could drink was Jameson, because it was triple distilled, as if the gluten could survive the first two goes but not the third. A few minutes of Google searching will reveal that vast misconceptions about spirits and gluten persist today. Given that confusion, it would make sense if some whiskey distillers wanted to slap a “gluten-free” tag on their bottles.[i]

Alas, you will not find those words on a whiskey bottle, no matter how many celebrities adopt it as a fad diet. The TTB, which regulates most forms of alcohol, doesn’t allow it. You may instead label it “processed to remove gluten”, an un-sexy declaration compounded by the mandatory buzzkill explanation that must appear below it:

“This product was distilled from grains containing gluten, which removed some or all of the gluten. The gluten content of this product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.”

Kinda ruins the point. The TTB does allow brands making potato/corn/fruit-based spirits to use the “gluten free” tag, and a few have taken them up on it, taking advantage of TTB’s unscientific policy to try to corner the market of uninformed health-conscious drinkers (which I think we’d all agree is a pretty big market).

Where you will consistently see “gluten free” in big, bold text is on beer made without barley (like Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge, made with Sorghum), and on hard cider. Why? Because these are some of the only alcoholic beverages regulated by the FDA, not the TTB, and the FDA is perfectly fine with it. FDA also allows gluten-free food products to contain distilled alcohol or vinegar, no matter their grainy source, without losing the label. The TTB is holding on to its antiquated gluten-free standards out of concern that consumers could interpret those words as a “health claim”, and they are very wary of anything that could make someone think liquor is good for you. They would like to deny those potato/corn/fruit-based spirits folks as well, but simply can’t find a legal excuse to do so.

That’s because the gluten question straddles the line between a health claim and simple consumer information (as do a few other statements like “no added sugar”). Other potential additions to labels, however, are decidedly in the former camp. There are studies out there showing links between alcohol consumption and reduced risk of lung cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoporosis. One study even famously suggested that drinking might make you smarter. Some booze makers would probably like to slap all that on the bottle.

Chief among the alcohol health claims, however, is that moderate drinking, especially of red wine, can lower the risk of heart disease. After a study in 1991 first analyzed the “French Paradox”—that French people drank more, smoked more, and ate more saturated fat than Americans, yet had significantly lower rates of heart disease—researchers began to establish a link between the red wine the French consume and their coronary longevity. Wine makers seized on this good news and pressed the TTB to allow them to add related language to their bottles. TTB mulled it over for a few years, in classic governmental fashion, before deciding to let wine makers put one of two rather benign messages on their bottles (ex: The proud people who made this wine encourage you to consult your family doctor about the health effects of wine consumption.”). Despite the watered-down nature of the approved messages, advocacy groups and some legislators reacted strongly, especially after distillers made noise about messages of their own, some of the research having indicated that it was not wine specifically, but alcohol in general that carried the benefit.

After the backlash, TTB changed tack, issuing a rule that rescinded the previously-allowed statements in favor of a broader health claim policy: if you want to put a claim on the bottle, it has to both pass muster for truthfulness and include any and all relevant exceptions and specificities. With that in mind, here’s an excerpt from a Wine Spectator article on a recent wine/coronary heart disease study:

“The researchers then took a closer look: When subdividing the participant data by gender, they found that in the non-drinking category, the higher CHD risk appeared to only apply to women. When they split the data by age, they discovered that the elevated risk among inconsistently moderate drinkers was only present in participants older than 55. The study’s text suggests lifestyle changes—such as retirement, which is known to occur in conjunction with higher levels of drinking—as an explanation for this particular finding.”

Try fitting all that on a label. The policy has effectively put the kibosh on this kind of blatant health claim. It also mandates scientific accuracy and applies equally to all alcohol producers, two attributes that continue to elude the agency when it comes to gluten.[ii]

EDIT: it should be stressed that while pure whiskey and other spirits are gluten free, distillers may add a flavoring after distillation–a small amount of mash, for example–that contains gluten. Given that labeling laws do not require an ingredients list, it can be hard to find out which products do this.

[i] Most, however, would probably not. It kind of goes against the whole rugged, independent whiskey aesthetic, and could raise more questions than answers among non-gluten free drinkers.

[ii] Much of the information in the heart disease section comes from this article from the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service:

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