Here's a new twist on an old drink: gluten-free distilled spirits. After a 2012 Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) interim ruling, gluten-free labeled vodkas hit the market this year, including National Basketball Association legend Shaquille O’Neal’s gluten-free “Luv Shaq.”

Gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye, causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms in people suffering from the autoimmune disorder celiac disease (CD). According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, three million Americans suffer from CD, which attacks the lining of the small intestine and keeps the body from absorbing necessary nutrients. The FDA says CD is linked to anemia, osteoporosis, diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease and intestinal cancers.

Amidst these serious concerns for celiac sufferers, healthy food eaters and celebrities are living gluten-free lifestyles, increasing the demand for gluten free products.

But the new spirits labeling trend contradicts long-standing advisories from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that all distilled spirits are gluten-free unless it is added after distillation. So is this all a marketing gimmick?

Distillation involves heating, which vaporizes the alcohol as a way to remove it from the mixture. “Distilled spirits, because of the distillation process, should contain no detectable gluten residues or gluten peptide residues,” says Steve Taylor, co-director of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. “Proteins and peptides are not volatile and thus would not distill over.”

The TTB measure—which is under review after passage of the FDA gluten-free labeling standards in August—allows nonwheat, rye or barley distilled products to be labeled as gluten-free if verified by an R5 Mendez competitive ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), the main testing method for determining gluten in distilled spirits. Other gluten analysis techniques, including the sandwich R5 ELISA, often misconstrue the quantity of protein fragments in hydrolyzed products. According to Spain’s National Center for Biotechnology, the competitive ELISA only requires one QQPFP peptide epitope to react with the R5 antibody, and is capable of effectively measuring intact and hydrolyzed gluten in foods, syrups or beers down to three parts per million gluten.

For distilled spirits, the TTB requires gluten content be less than 20 ppm, the same limit that the FDA approved for its recent labeling law. The FDA says 20 ppm is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods and is consistent with the standards set in other countries. Taylor says the competitive ELISA will detect close to five ppm gluten in distilled products.

But is this testing even necessary?

Distillation debate

Blue Ice vodka’s American Potato Vodka became the first spirit to receive gluten-free labeling in May 2013. Company officials said CD sufferers frequently requested gluten content information. “With the celiac and gluten-free products becoming more accessible, why not go through the process of proving we were gluten-free to TTB? We could use it as one aspect of our marketing program,” says Thomas Gibson, the chief operating officer for 21st Century Spirits, Blue Ice’s parent company. With this labeling, Gibson says American Potato Vodka consumers can be 100-percent certain it’s gluten free.

But that guarantee is not necessary, says Taylor, one of the country’s leading gluten testers. Taylor calls gluten-free vodka a “silly thing. … All vodka is gluten-free unless there is some flavored vodka out there where someone adds a gluten-containing ingredient. I know that many celiac sufferers are extra-cautious. That is their privilege. But their [vodka] concerns are usually not science-based.”

No existing studies show that distilled spirits cause adverse reactions in those affected by gluten. Yet as many as 10 percent of Celiac Sprue Association members report symptoms when drinking distilled grain-based products, reports Mary Schluckebier, executive director of the nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to CD and dermatitis herpetiformis, a chronic rash linked to gluten sensitivity.

Schluckebier says gluten exists prior to the fermentation and no tests validate the consistent absence of toxic fractions after fermentation and commercial distillation. “If distillation took place in chemistry labs, it would be different,” Schluckebier remarks. Commercial distillers “often stop the distillation process for the optimum flavor of their liquor or add ingredients after distillation. If commercial distillation was perfect, why would some beverages require multiple distillations?”

Gluten-free everything

It's not just alcohol, of course. The new FDA label guidelines allow bottled water, vegetables and fruits to be labeled gluten-free even though these products do not naturally contain gluten. The FDA says gluten-free labeled products cannot contain any type of wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of these grains. The regulation also requires that the food does not contain an ingredient derived from these grains.

The new labeling has created a marketing frenzy that may become a $6.2-billion gluten-free product industry by 2018, according to a 2013 report from research firm MarketsandMarkets. Some say the risk of cross-contamination warrants such broad labeling; others claim the FDA just made gluten-free living much more complicated.

Although she is pleased with an FDA formal definition of gluten-free in labeling, Schluckebier notes the less than 20-ppm gluten allowance is likely to create an artificial sense of labeling security. A 2011 FDA report, “Health Hazard Assessment for Gluten Exposure in Individuals with Celiac Disease,” recommended the “most sensitive individuals with CD” eat foods with less than one-ppm gluten levels to protect them fromfrom experiencing any detrimental health effects from extended to long-term exposure to gluten.”

But Taylor, for one, defends the FDA’s 20-ppm measure and assures celiac disease sufferers that there’s no risk in drinking distilled spirits. As he says: “the FDA and other public health agencies around the world have reviewed the evidence and concluded that products with less than 20-ppm gluten are safe for the vast majority of celiac sufferers.”