_Are All Vinegars Safe for Celiacs?_, a recent article, is a good example of how GLUTEN-FREE LIVING tackles tough topics.
Grain-based vinegar has been a controversial celiac issue in the United States, but not in other countries. Some US national support groups say it is safe; others say it is not safe. Rank-and-file celiacs are left in the middle, trying to figure out what to do to stay healthy.
We have received many questions about vinegar here at *Gluten-Free Living*. But in our experience, the celiac community keeps asking scientists questions about the safety of vinegar and *rejecting the answers* -- so it could be pointless to research and report on this topic. Plus there have been misunderstandings not only about the ingredients used in making vinegar but also about the process itself. Here is what we were able to find out about vinegar.
There are several types of vinegar, most of which do not begin with wheat. In a recent letter, Jeannie Milewski, Technical Manager at The Vinegar Institute, wrote: "Gluten is not present in the starting material commonly used in the manufacture of vinegar. Apple, grape, corn and rice sugars are the most frequently used sources of alcohol that are fermented into vinegar."
The *Compliance Policy Guide* for vinegar from the Food and Drug Administration, which indicates what different vinegars can be made of, says the same thing. This guide includes no mention of wheat. It indicates that the single word "vinegar" on a label means apple cider vinegar. The Guide does say spirit vinegar, distilled vinegar and grain vinegar should be made from dilute, distilled alcohol. Traditionally, distilled alcohol has been the primary concern of celiacs because it has been thought that the source of the distilled alcohol could be wheat.
However, according to The Vinegar Institute and several vinegar producers, most distilled white vinegars are made from corn. Ms. Milewski says, "Alcohol manufacturers and independent laboratories have tested alcohol produced from corn and have been unable to detect the presence of any protein. While it is possible for white vinegars to be manufactured from grains other than corn, it is uncommon. However, we suggest that gluten-sensitive consumers contact the manufacturer to ensure the vinegar is gluten free."
So the first reason why vinegar is not likely to be a problem for celiacs is that wheat is rarely used for this purpose. ***
Many of us have read complex explanations of how vinegar is made. If you aren't a scientist, you probably don't understand the explanations. If you are a scientist, you probably aren't worried about gluten in distilled vinegar.
Very simplistically, to make vinegar, some ingredient (probably not wheat) is fermented, and then the resulting alcohol is distilled. The distillation step has been the crux of the celiac matter with vinegar. According to the dictionary, "Distillation is the process of first heating a mixture to separate the more volatile from the less volatile parts, and then cooling and condensing the vapor so as to produce a more nearly pure or refined substance; non-volatile impurities remain in the residue."
Scientists say gluten molecules are heavy and non-volatile. They will not turn into steam and cross over into the end product. So they should "remain in the residue."
It would seem that this information -- wheat is rarely used to make vinegar and even if it were used, gluten peptides would not survive the distillation step -- would end any celiac concern about vinegar.
But the concern has lingered for three reasons. First, some celiacs say large-scale distillation might not be as precise as small-laboratory distillation, so gluten peptides might sneak through the distillation into the distillate used to make the vinegar. Although this concern would seem to defy science and the vinegar-making process itself, it has lingered.
Second, some celiacs say they "react" to distilled white vinegar and conclude that it must contain gluten. Since vinegar is not consumed alone, how these celiacs know distilled white vinegar causes their reaction is not clear.
Third, there is no absolute guarantee that the starting material isn't wheat, so conservative celiacs say all celiacs should avoid all vinegars known to be started from wheat or for which the starting source is unknown.
*On the first reason, that something could go wrong with the distillation, of course things do go wrong in the real world. But in this case, what is being distilled is most likely not wheat, and whatever the original material is, by the time it's fermented, it's alcohol, not the original material. Although a small percentage of the original material could remain in the alcohol, in the unlikely event that the starting material was wheat, scientists say any gluten peptides that survived fermentation would not survive distillation. Furthermore, they indicate that should something go wrong during distillation, even the wrongest wrong would still produce a product that is safe for celiacs (see following).*
On the second reason, celiacs have been told time and time again that what one celiac experiences with certain GF foods is not applicable to all celiacs. Those who react to distilled white vinegar should avoid it.
As far as a "conservative" approach to the diet is concerned, no doubt that is a healthy approach. But avoiding a class of products because something toxic "could" be there, even though all indications are that it is not, does not sound healthy. And if we are going to worry about what "could" be in certain foods, we should be consistent. The mind boggles at what we would be avoiding if we carried this thought to a logical conclusion. The first thing that comes to mind is all processed foods not produced in a dedicated facility.
But forget all the explanations, all the doubts and all of the fears that the vinegar question has generated. The best answer to questions about the safety of vinegar *was given over 10 years ago* by J.A. Campbell, Ph.D., then chairman of the Nutrition Advisory Board for the Canadian Celiac Association, and a scientist who had done some pertinent research.
Dr. Campbell wanted to determine the effectiveness of the distillation process in eliminating residual solids. He was as interested in alcoholic beverages as he was in vinegar. So whatever he found about alcoholic beverages would be even more true about vinegar since vinegar would use a smaller amount of distillate than alcoholic drinks and the distillate would be more dilute (read even less gluten in the unlikely event some was there).
Dr. Campbell's data indicated a residue of less than 0.2 mg per liter (1.06 quarts) of distillate, and he noted that these distillates are never used at full strength, so the above number would be even smaller. He compared this amount of potential gluten to the lowest amount considered to be toxic to some individuals (1-2 mg gliadin, the amount still quoted today). Then he wrote:
"To expose a celiac patient to this level of gliadin would require the consumption of at least 20 liter (21.2 quarts) potable spirits a day. The patient would undoubtedly be more at risk from alcohol than from luten toxicity. When distilled grain alcohol is used in the production of white vinegar...the dilution factor is still greater and the possible concentration of gluten-like substances even less."
So it would be literally impossible to consume enough vinegar to even get close to the lowest amount considered to be toxic to some individuals, assuming some toxic material was present.
Other scientists agree with Dr. Campbell, most notably Don Kasarda, a respected American grain chemist who has provided scientifically- and research- based guidance to American celiacs for many years. Dr. Kasarda has been asked again and again about vinegar. His answer is always the same:
"I agree with Dr. Campbell on this. Amino acids, peptides and proteins are of such low volatility compared to the high volatility of ethyl alcohol that they should not be found in the distilled alcohol. There is no scientific evidence for gluten peptides in alcohol or vinegar that I am aware of. *I have never encountered a single chemist who thinks there are gluten peptides in distilled alcohol from wheat grain*. I have not personally researched this matter because it is such an unlikely possibility and to prove the absence of gluten peptides that might be present in minute amounts is likely to be a major, costly undertaking and not at all easy. I realize that some celiac patients may have a disagreeable digestive response to white vinegar...but if it doesn't bother you don't worry about it. If it does bother you, don't ingest it. (Malt vinegar is the only vinegar that I think might contain harmful peptides.)"
Despite all this credible evidence (there is plenty more), the US celiac community has continued to equivocate about gluten in vinegar, which has several harmful consequences.
First of all, it casts doubt on a long list of common foods that contain vinegar, the obvious, like salad dressings, and the less-than- obvious, like ricotta cheese. This doubt adds what are almost certainly unnecessary restrictions to a limited diet that is already very restrictive.
Not only that, it can be difficult to search for the source of a vinegar used as an ingredient in other foods. You can call the food processor, who may or may not know which vinegar was used in which product. You can ask other celiacs, who may know no more than you. You can consult the GF food lists, all of which indicate that the information they contain may not be valid at the time you are reading it. So there are no reliable ways to check for the sources in all the various vinegars used in products like ketchup and salad dressings.
The continuing controversy about the possibility of gluten in some vinegars also casts doubt on initial basic guidance about the gluten- free diet. If some respected group leaders say vinegar is safe and other respected leaders say it's not safe, who should a new celiac believe?
Worse yet, all the controversy about vinegar seems to send newly diagnosed patients off on a search for vinegar in products rather than a search for gluten. They set off on the wrong gluten-free foot, looking for a needle in a haystack, even though the needle probably isn't there, and worrying about which kind of vinegar is in which product, when they should be looking for the more obvious mountain of gluten in their diet so they can weed it out.
All celiacs lose credibility with food processors about their own diet when they continue to worry about the possibility of gluten in some vinegars. Why should food companies take our valid questions about gluten freeness seriously when we don't take the answers their well- paid scientists give us seriously.
Furthermore, in the face of such rigidity, some companies are forced to say things about ingredients that seem to fuel the initial questions! At the beginning of this article, you read what The Vinegar Institute says about the possibility of gluten in vinegar. Initially it says, "Gluten is not present in the starting material commonly used in the manufacture of vinegar." But at the end adds, "However, we suggest that gluten-sensitive customers contact the manufacturer to ensure the vinegar is gluten free." You can read the end of the response as contradicting the beginning -- and answers like this are very common.
Celiacs will never get definitive answers about ingredients in processed foods as long as they continue to question valid answers that are supported by science.
Finally, continued doubt about ingredients such as vinegar could cast doubt on the very strong probability of living a long, healthy life once diagnosed with celiac disease and on the gluten-free diet. Why feel confident when there are so many perceived unknowns, so much conflict and so much confusion?
Since there seems to be no firm basis for avoiding vinegar, it would be best for all celiacs if the controversy about this product was laid to rest (some groups are moving in this direction). Then we can get on to more important things and help all celiacs feel more confident about their diet and their health.
*** The one vinegar about which celiacs might have some concern is malt vinegar, which is made from "an infusion of barley malt or cereals," according to the Compliance Policy Guide." Also, a few vinegars do have flavoring or something else added back in after distillation. If so, that would be indicated on the label.
*From GLUTEN-FREE LIVING, the Resource for People with Gluten Sensitivity. Subscriptions are $29 for one year, $49 for two years. Write to Gluten-Free Living, PO Box 105, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706.* Comments to GLUTEN-FREE LIVING Magazine
Feedback to the Listowners