Smart Sipping: Your Grain-Free Alcohol Options

Going grain free to heal your body? You can still toast to that.

August 29, 2014
Photograph by Thinkstock

Having a glass or two of wine, brandy, or a cocktail is perfectly in line with the grain-free lifestyle, but you will have to be selective. The price of a poor choice can reignite an autoimmune condition, provoke high blood sugar, trigger an inappropriate emotional outburst that ruins your evening, or set off weight gain. The reward for choosing beverages with minimal grain proteins or grain-free alcohol can be a wonderful time spent with friends without such problems. Also, recognize that any amount of wine, cocktails, or beer can stall weight loss. Wine is as close to a perfect wheat- and gluten-free beverage as it gets, regardless of varietal or vintage. Combined with the probable health effects that derive from light wine drinking (no more than two 4-ounce glasses per day) due to the combination of alcohol, anthocyanins (which provide the red-purple color of red wine), and perhaps resveratrol, wine drinking is proving to be both pleasurable and healthy.

Rarely, gluten is used as a clarifying agent. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease") raised doubts about the safety of gelatin, and gluten emerged as an alternative, though very few winemakers use it. Even less commonly, a wheat flour–containing paste is used to seal the barrels used to age wines. The presence of gluten in wine is therefore uncommon. Even if gluten were used as the clarifying agent, it is unlikely to pose sufficient exposure to generate an immune response. Note that wine coolers typically contain barley malt, not to mention higher carbohydrate and sugar levels, and should be avoided. (Why avoid wheat in the first place? Check out the 7 weird things it does to your body.)


More: 9 Sneaky Sources of Gluten

Virtually all ales, beers, malt liquors, and lagers are brewed from grains and are therefore off the list, as there are measurable grain protein residues present—generally 1 to 2 grams per 12 ounces. This is not a lot, but it's enough to stimulate appetite, provoke inflammation, and initiate autoimmunity. People with celiac disease or the most extreme forms of gluten sensitivity should avoid beers altogether, except those designated gluten-free. (Though I have my doubts about even the gluten-free products, since all are brewed from the seeds of grasses.)

If a beer is designated gluten-free, no gliadin or gluten should be present (the official cutoff is fewer than 20 parts per million), but there is still potential for uncertain reactions from other grain proteins. Those who do not have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity seem to do OK with beers brewed from sorghum and rice but which also include barley malt, though you may have to experiment and see how your body reacts to these beers before you decide whether or not to consume them regularly. For instance, grains trigger these skin problems for some people, and that's just the tip of the iceberg! Of all alcoholic beverages, beer is the most hazardous, so be careful. 

If you must drink it, here are a few of the least problematic brews:

Bard's Gluten-Free Beers
Brewed from sorghum without barley, this beer is truly gluten-free. As with many gluten-free beers, however, it's high in carbs, and therefore you should not drink more than one a day (14.2 grams carbohydrates per 12-ounce bottle).

Bud Light and Michelob Ultra
Bud Light, made by Anheuser-Busch, is brewed from rice but also contains barley malt. The most severely gluten-sensitive people should therefore not indulge in this beer because of the gluten content. But most of us who are just avoiding wheat but aren't gluten sensitive can safely consume this brand without exposing ourselves to the undesirable effects of grains. One 12-ounce bottle contains 6.6 grams of carbohydrates.

Michelob Ultra is likewise brewed from rice with barley malt. It is also low in carbohydrates, with 2.6 grams per 12-ounce serving.

Redbridge is brewed from sorghum and is not brewed with wheat or barley. It is therefore confidently gluten-free, though it's still brewed from the seed of a grass. The carbohydrate content is a bit high at 16.4 grams per bottle; have more than one beer and the carbohydrates begin to stack up.

Green's Gluten-Free Beers
UK brewer Green's provides several gluten-free choices made from sorghum, millet, buckwheat, brown rice, and "deglutenised" barley malt. They are not grain free and have low quantities of grain proteins. So tread carefully here, and make judgments based on your individual experience. The carbohydrate content of these beers is slightly less than most others, ranging from 10 to 14 grams per 330-milliliter bottle.

In addition to these choices, I have seen some microbreweries starting to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon. Look for beers brewed from chicory and other alternative ingredients.

More: 11 Foods Every Gluten-Free Pantry Needs

Avoid vodkas brewed from grains if you have an extreme gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Wheat-sourced vodkas include Absolut, Grey Goose, Ketel One, SKYY, and Stolichnaya. Non-wheat but grain-sourced vodkas include Belvedere (rye), Finlandia (barley), Van Gogh (wheat, barley, and corn), and Smirnoff (corn).

For the rest of us, the low grain-protein content in these beverages (they contain gluten and other prolamins at less than 20 parts per million) means they are likely safe to consume. The safest vodkas, however, are free of any grain proteins; these include Chopin (potatoes) and Cîroc (grapes). Beware of the flavored varieties, as they tend to be loaded with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. In general, simple unflavored vodkas are safest.

Most whiskeys are not safe for those highly sensitive to grain proteins, since they are distilled from rye, barley, wheat, and corn. Whiskeys nearly always test below 20 parts per million for gluten, which is the limit the Food and Drug Administration considers safe for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Nonetheless, some people still seem to react to whiskeys distilled from grains. This means that by consuming many popular whiskeys, such as Jack Daniels (barley, rye, and corn), Jameson (barley), and Bushmills (barley), you are risking a gluten (gliadin) reaction. People without extreme sensitivities are likely to be just fine, given the very low quantity of grain proteins.

Rum is distilled from sugar cane and does not contain any residues of grain proteins. Be careful of any flavored or spiced rums, though, which may contain a grain-based ingredient, excessive sugar, or high-fructose corn syrup. (Learn how to detox from grains in 10 days flat.)

Safe liqueurs include Kahlúa (contains dairy), fruit liqueurs like triple sec and Cherry Kijafa, amaretto, and Bailey’s Irish Cream (contains dairy). The most gluten-sensitive may have to avoid those blended with whiskey, as the source of whiskey is often not specified. Also, note that liqueurs tend to be high in sugar.

Brandies and cognacs are generally safe, since they are distilled from wine. Safe brands include Grand Marnier, Courvoisier, and Rémy Martin. There are occasional exceptions (such as Martell) that add caramel coloring, which is a potential grain exposure.

Adapted From Wheat Belly Total Health

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