Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rethinking Malt Vinegar

As you've undoubtedly noticed, in recent posts I've focused pretty heavily on barley, brewing beer, and malting grains.  This makes it timely, I think, to revisit the topic of malt vinegar.  It is made by first malting barley, and then fermenting/brewing that malted barley into a basic form of beer.  Lastly, the beer is allowed to turn into vinegar (via a second fermentation process), during which the beer's ethanol (alcohol) converts to acetic acid.

In the United States, the conventional wisdom has been - and continues to be - that malt vinegar is NOT SUITABLE for someone on a gluten-free diet.  This rationale is based primarily on two important factors: 1) That malt vinegar is made from barley, a gluten-containing ingredient, and 2) That, unlike other vinegars, malt vinegar is not a distilled vinegar.  (For more information on distillation and gluten-free foods, see this post.)

However, recent research suggests that this degree of caution may be unfounded.  I won't go into the finer points of the science here, but the main gist is that the process by which malt vinegar is made systematically and incrementally breaks down its gluten (and/or lowers its concentration) to sufficiently low levels to make it acceptable for people on a gluten-free diet.  For instance, the process of malting breaks down some of barley's hordeins (the gluten protein in barley).  The mashing part of the brewing process as well as the yeast fermentation both continue that sequence of further breaking down barley's hordeins.  Lastly, the malt vinegar is then diluted with water (typically to 5% acidity).  (It's also worth noting that malt vinegar is almost always used as a condiment in low quantities...)  Again, the idea is that at each stage of the malt vinegar production process, the gluten is either a) broken down, or b) diluted.

The end result is that malt vinegar in theory contains very little - or possibly even no - in tact gluten.  Surely, this will come as a surprise to many in the United States.  It may even be considered controversial, or dismissed outright.  But consider that Coeliac UK, the leading non-profit focused on Celiac Disease in the United Kingdom, maintains that malt vinegar is ACCEPTABLE for people on a gluten-free diet.  (See the 3rd question under the gluten-free diet FAQ here.)  This is major news for us US-based gluten-free foodies.  

It goes without saying that you should consult your doctor before you consider adding malt vinegar to your gluten-free diet.  I haven't exactly gone out and started chugging half bottles of malt vinegar to test things out.  But I did recently attend a dinner at a friend's house, and they served jerk pork.  The recipe included 2 tbsp malt vinegar to every 2.5 pounds of pork, and when all was said and done, I didn't get sick.  I'm only a sample size of one, and hardly representative of all gluten-free foodies out there - we're a diverse group with different conditions (Celiac, gluten intolerance, wheat allergy) and different levels of sensitivity.  But I do believe we're living at a time when some of the conventional wisdom surrounding the gluten-free diet may be overthrown, if not revised.

Only time will tell what reforms take hold...

- Pete

13 comments:

Jenn said...

very interesting! I suppose it wouldn't be hard to get an exact number for gluten content...I think I would want to see some test results first though before risking glutening my husband...

peterbronski said...

Hey Jenn... The brewing science journals do have some hard numbers on gluten content in malted barley and beer brewed from barley, but I personally haven't seen similar studies that look at malt vinegar. In addition, science is just now giving us tests that reliably measure gluten in fermented foods, such as beer and malt vinegar. Historically, tests have been inaccurate. (Also, something to consider: Heinz malt vinegar is made with barley AND corn, which would further reduce concentrations.) But I totally agree - it's good to see the numbers first before making a decision. It's not fun playing guinea pig with our own bodies (or our spouses').

Cheers, Pete

Joe Abrahamson said...

A new GF beer from Sprecher,

http://fourfirkins.cloudprofile.com/23075/2010/04/22/a-new-gluten-free-beer--mbege-from-sprecher-.html

peterbronski said...

Hi Joe... Thanks for the tip! I've had Sprecher's Shakparo but not yet the Mbege.

Cheers, Pete

angelaskitchen said...

Hmm, the big thing for malt vinegar used to be the whole homemade fish 'n chips thing. And the giant fresh fry booth at the MN state fair. Oh, the malted vinegar on those crispy potato chunks of heaven! Sigh..

I am too much of a chicken to try it, though, just yet. But thanks for the heads up. I'll have to do a bit more reading on it. It would be a tasty thing to be able to have again someday!!

peterbronski said...

Hey Angela... And of course, as soon as you bring fish and chips into the equation (and who doesn't, when it comes to malt vinegar?), you have to think about the breading on the fish, and the oil used to fry it...

Cheers, Pete

NotSoGreen said...

There's also the option to take a gluten free beer such as RedBridge(sorghum based) and product your own malt vinegar. Not terribly difficult and in my opinion worth the effort for fish'n'chips :)

http://www.ehow.com/how_6172603_make-malt-vinegar.html

peterbronski said...

Hi NotSoGreen... An interesting, and totally valid, suggestion! Have you tried doing it? How did it turn out?

Cheers, Pete

Colin W (UK) said...

8 years after diagnosis, I think I am now reacting to wheat cross contamination in deep fat fryers. So watch out for that one when putting vinegar on your chips/french fries. Also watch out for wheat based micro coatings on chips (chips as in UK parlance - maybe French Fries in the US)

peterbronski said...

Hi Colin... Yes, cross contamination in fryer oil can be a concern, as can "coatings" on certain chips/french fries. Always good to share a word of caution!

Cheers, Pete

Metermaid said...

I'm British and just caused myself a health problem by eating about 4oz of beetroot pickled in malt vinegar, even though it was drained, so I'd be wary... red wine vinegar makes an acceptable substitute on chips and in a lot of things. Just my two cents 9or tuppence worth, as we say here!).

kellibronski said...

Hi Metermaid - Thanks for sharing your experience, and for the tip about red wine vinegar.

Kelli

Anonymous said...

This is interesting. Recently, I ate malt vinegar chips (not realizing they were malt vinegar) and became very ill as a result and had to google whether malt vinegar was ok(I have fibro and am a celiac). However, I can tolerate soy sauce ok. I think it depends on the processing as well.