Can celiacs have barley malt extract?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune system reacts by attacking the small intestine, leading to inflammation and damage to the villi – the finger-like protrusions that line the small intestine and absorb nutrients from food. This damage makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients, often resulting in symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue, and weight loss. The only treatment for celiac disease is strict adherence to a lifelong gluten-free diet, avoiding all foods and products containing gluten.

What is barley malt extract?

Barley malt extract is derived from barley grains. Barley is one of the gluten-containing grains that those with celiac disease must avoid. Barley malt extract is made by sprouting barley grains to activate enzymes, then drying and crushing the barley malt. This malt is then mixed with water and the sugars and carbohydrates are extracted to make a thick, sweet syrup called barley malt extract.

Barley malt extract is used as a sweetener, flavoring agent, and natural coloring in many foods and beverages, including baked goods, cereals, confections, snacks, beer, whiskey, and others. It provides a sweet, malty flavor. Barley malt extract contains some gluten, as it is made from gluten-containing barley grains.

Can celiacs consume barley malt extract?

The short answer is no, people with celiac disease should avoid barley malt extract. Since barley malt extract comes from gluten-containing barley grains, it is not considered gluten-free. Any product containing barley malt extract would be unsafe for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Here are some key points on why celiacs must avoid barley malt extract:

  • Barley malt extract contains gluten proteins from barley that can trigger an immune reaction in those with celiac disease.
  • Even tiny amounts of gluten from barley malt can cause intestinal damage and symptoms in celiacs.
  • There are no safe thresholds for barley gluten consumption in celiacs – it must be completely avoided.
  • Barley malt extract is considered an unsafe ingredient for the gluten-free diet.
  • Consuming barley malt extract regularly can cause persistent intestinal damage and prevent healing in celiacs.

For those with celiac disease, reading ingredient lists carefully and avoiding any barley malt extract is key to preventing exposure to gluten. Oats are also a gluten cross-reactive grain, meaning some celiacs react to avenins in oats similar to gluten, so they also must avoid oat malt extract.

What about gluten-removed barley malt extract?

Some manufacturers produce “gluten-removed” extracts using special processing methods that are claimed to remove gluten proteins from barley malt extract. However, there is much debate around whether these products are safe for celiacs.

Here are some considerations on gluten-removed barley malt extract:

  • It is unclear if all gluten protein can be completely removed to undetectable levels.
  • Small studies show mixed results on whether celiacs react to these extracts.
  • The FDA does not allow labels like “gluten-free” on gluten-removed products.
  • Without FDA regulation, gluten levels can vary between production lots.
  • Ingesting small amounts over time could still cause intestinal damage.
  • These products remain controversial in the celiac community.

Unless an individual has tested a specific brand and batch of gluten-removed barley malt extract themselves under medical supervision and proven they do not react, these products cannot be universally recommended as safe. The Celiac Disease Foundation and other groups advise celiacs to avoid them.

Potential for cross-contamination

Even if a barley malt extract has had gluten proteins removed, there is still risk of cross-contamination with gluten grains during production and processing. Cross-contamination occurs when gluten is accidentally mixed into gluten-free products, often due to shared equipment or facilities.

Points on cross-contamination include:

  • Facilities that process barley malt extract may also handle wheat, rye, or other gluten grains.
  • Without proper cleaning, gluten residues can transfer between products.
  • Many products with “gluten-removed” extracts have tested at unsafe gluten levels.
  • Those with celiac disease are very sensitive and react to just tiny gluten traces.
  • Testing final products for gluten is important with these specialty ingredients.

So even in the case of gluten-removed extracts, cross-contamination poses risks and celiacs should use caution with these ingredients unless products are certified gluten-free.

What foods contain barley malt extract?

There are many foods and beverages that use barley malt extract as an ingredient. Being aware of these sources of barley malt can help celiacs avoid inadvertent gluten exposure. Here are some examples of foods containing barley malt extract as an ingredient:

  • Beer and malt beverages
  • Malted milkshakes and malted milk balls
  • Bagels, pretzels, cereals
  • Baked goods like cookies and bars
  • Confectionery like chocolate, caramels, malt balls
  • Flavored snack foods like crackers, chips
  • Breakfast foods like waffles, pancakes, oatmeal
  • Frozen desserts like ice cream, frozen yogurt
  • Powdered beverage mixes
  • Candy and candy bars
  • Flavored coffee drinks
  • Nutritional supplement powders and bars
  • Soup bases and bouillon cubes
  • Soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, and marinades
  • Flavor extracts like vanilla
  • Some prescription drugs and over the counter medications

This list highlights the wide range of products that can contain barley malt. Reading labels is key, as barley malt extract may be found in unexpected places. Calling manufacturers to inquire about ingredients is wise when uncertain.

Safer gluten-free alternatives to barley malt

Thankfully, people with celiac disease avoiding barley malt extract have many healthier gluten-free alternatives for sweetening, flavoring, and coloring foods and beverages. Here are some great options:

  • Brown rice syrup – Made from cooked brown rice, providing light sweetness.
  • Sorghum syrup – Made from sorghum grain, with a rich sweetness.
  • Fruit juice concentrates – Like apple, pear, or grape juice concentrate.
  • Fruit purees – Such as apricot, peach, or plum.
  • Coconut sugar – Has a caramel-like flavor.
  • Maple syrup – Provides uniquely maple taste.
  • Molasses – Offers a robust, bittersweet flavor.
  • Honey – Has floral sweetness.
  • Monk fruit – A zero-calorie natural sweetener.
  • Stevia – Also zero-calorie and plant-based.

These gluten-free alternatives provide an array of sweet flavors and can be substituted in recipes calling for barley malt. When buying packaged products, check that they are certified gluten-free to avoid cross-contamination.

Other substitute ingredients

In addition to sweeteners, other whole foods make good substitutes for replicated the taste, texture, moisture, and coloring barley malt provides:

  • Cocoa powder – For chocolate flavor and coloring.
  • Carob powder – Provides a chocolate-like taste.
  • Vanilla extract – Adds rich vanilla flavor.
  • Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger – For flavor and complexity.
  • Gluten-free grains like quinoa, buckwheat, millet – For malty flavor.
  • Flax or chia seeds – Contribute texture and moisture.
  • Nuts and nut butters – For flavor and richness.
  • Shredded coconut – Provides chewy texture.

Having an arsenal of gluten-free real-food ingredients helps provide savory, sweet, and malty flavors without barley malt extract.

Are malt vinegar and malt flavoring safe?

While barley malt extract is not safe for those with celiac disease, malt vinegar and natural malt flavoring from gluten-free grains are generally considered gluten-free. Here’s a breakdown:

Malt vinegar

Malt vinegar is fermented from barley malt. But the gluten protein is broken down into safe peptides and amino acids during the extensive fermentation process. High quality malt vinegar that is distilled should not contain residual gluten. However, malt vinegar is still debated in the celiac community. While many are not sensitive, some react and prefer to avoid it.

Malt flavor/natural flavors

Natural malt flavor can be derived from gluten-free grains like corn, rice and sorghum. When labeling follows FDA guidelines, natural flavors from gluten-free sources should be safe. But it’s always smart to call manufacturers if uncertain.

Those with celiac disease need to be aware that “malt flavor” on its own may indicate barley malt, which would be unsafe.Checking the source grain and verifying gluten-free status is important.

Cross-reactivity with gluten and auto-brewery syndrome

In addition to causing gastrointestinal damage, for some with celiac disease barley malt extract may lead to cross-reactivity or auto-brewery syndrome:


Those with celiac disease may also react to avenins in oats, similar to gluten. There are two schools of thought:

  • Some cannot tolerate oats due to gluten cross-reactivity.
  • Pure, uncontaminated oats may be safe if introduced gradually.

It’s best for celiacs to discuss oat introduction with a doctor. If oats also lead to symptoms or intestinal damage, avoiding any oat malt extract is advised as well.

Auto-brewery syndrome

Some celiacs experience auto-brewery syndrome, where yeast in the gut ferments carbs into alcohol. This can cause symptoms like brain fog after carbohydrate meals. Barley malt sugars may feed these yeast, so avoidance helps manage this condition.

What about activities like brewery tours?

For those with celiac disease, visiting facilities like breweries that handle barley malt extract does not pose an ingestion risk. However, certain precautions around direct handling may be prudent:

  • Avoid direct contact with raw barley malt grains.
  • Wear gloves if available when touching equipment.
  • Be aware of potential airborne dust from malt grains.
  • Wash hands thoroughly before eating anything.
  • Bring your own clearly marked gluten-free snacks, drinks.

With sound precautions, activities like tours of breweries using barley malt can be enjoyed without concerns around accidental ingestion of gluten.


The verdict is clear – barley malt extract is unsafe for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Complete avoidance of this common ingredient sourced from gluten-containing barley is essential to prevent intestinal damage and symptoms. Diligent label reading, calling manufacturers when uncertain, and choosing gluten-free substitute ingredients allows those avoiding gluten to stay safe while still enjoying delicious foods and beverages.

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