Is barley malt extract OK for gluten free?

Gluten free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, both for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and for those simply looking to avoid gluten for other reasons. For those following a strict gluten free diet, it’s important to pay close attention to ingredient labels, as gluten can sneak into foods in unexpected ways. One such potential source of gluten is barley malt extract.

Barley malt extract is derived from barley, a grain that naturally contains gluten. This leads many people to assume that barley malt extract is not gluten free. However, the actual gluten content of barley malt extract depends on how it is processed and manufactured. The answer is not completely straightforward, as different experts and organizations have different opinions on whether barley malt extract can be considered gluten free.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at barley malt extract and its gluten content. We’ll cover:

  • What is barley malt extract?
  • How is barley malt extract produced?
  • Does barley malt extract contain gluten?
  • How much gluten is in barley malt extract?
  • Is barley malt extract safe for a gluten free diet?
  • What do different organizations say about barley malt extract and gluten?
  • What about certified gluten free barley malt extract?
  • Verdict: Is barley malt extract OK for gluten free diets?

Armed with the facts, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether barley malt extract fits into your gluten free lifestyle.

What is Barley Malt Extract?

Barley malt extract (also sometimes called malt extract) is a thick, sticky syrup made from barley that has been allowed to sprout, or germinate. This germination triggers natural enzymes to convert the starch stored in the barley seeds into sugars. The barley malt is then dried and soaked in hot water to extract the natural sugars.

The resulting barley malt extract is a dark brown, sweet syrup that consists primarily of glucose, maltose, maltotriose and other carbohydrates and sugars extracted from the sprouted barley.

Barley malt extract is about 45-65% maltose, a type of sugar that consists of two glucose molecules bonded together. The sugar content gives barley malt extract a sweet flavor.

Uses of Barley Malt Extract

Barley malt extract has a variety of uses, including:

  • Baking – Barley malt extract helps baked goods stay moist and tender and adds a rich, malty sweetness. It can be used to replace some or all of the granulated sugar in recipes.
  • Beverages – Barley malt extract is used to brew beer by providing fermentable sugars. It’s also used to add flavor, body and sweetness to root beers and chocolate or malted milkshakes.
  • Candy – Barley malt extract is used as an ingredient in some malted milk balls, chocolate bars and other confections.
  • Cereals – Barley malt extract can be found coating the pieces in malt-flavored breakfast cereals.
  • Other foods – Small amounts of barley malt extract are used as a flavoring in some processed foods like snack chips, roasted nuts and protein bars.

So in summary, barley malt extract is derived from barley and provides sweetness from natural barley sugars. Now let’s look at how it’s produced.

How is Barley Malt Extract Produced?

Barley malt extract production involves sprouting and further processing of barley grains. Here is the basic process:

  1. Barley grains are soaked and allowed to sprout. This germination process activates enzymes that convert the starch to sugar.
  2. The sprouted grains are dried by kilning to stop the germination process. Kilning can be done at lower or higher temperatures, which affects the color and flavor of the malt.
  3. The dried malt is then mixed with hot water to extract the sugars. This mash filtration separates the liquid extract from the grain solids.
  4. The barley malt extract liquid is concentrated and further refined. It may be spray-dried to turn it into a powder.

The key step that impacts gluten content is the germination, or malting, which activates the gluten protein development. Traditional production of barley malt extract involves allowing the barley to fully sprout to maximize the sugar content.

However, some newer methods limit the sprouting time or use unmalted barley to produce what is called “dextrinous” barley malt extract with lower gluten content.

So in summary, the production process influences the gluten levels in the final product. Now let’s look specifically at the gluten content of barley malt extract.

Does Barley Malt Extract Contain Gluten?

Barley is one of the gluten-containing cereal grains, along with wheat, rye and triticale. Gluten is the name for the proteins found in these grains:

  • Gliadins
  • Glutenins

When flour or grains from wheat, barley, rye or triticale are mixed with water, the gluten proteins form an elastic network that gives the dough its chewy texture. People with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity cannot tolerate these gluten proteins.

However, when barley malt extract is produced, much of the original grain is broken down into sugars and other compounds. The question is how much gluten protein remains in the final liquid or dried extract.

According to testing by the Gluten Intolerance Group, regular barley malt extract that has been produced through fully sprouting the barley does contain detectable levels of gluten. How much gluten is present depends on the production method, which we’ll explore next.

How Much Gluten is in Barley Malt Extract?

Testing has shown conventional barley malt extract generally contains between 2 – 40 parts per million (ppm) of gluten:

  • One study found barley malt extract from seven different suppliers ranged from 4 – 40 ppm of gluten.
  • The Gluten Intolerance Group found two samples of barley malt extract containing 30 and 35 ppm of gluten.
  • Bob’s Red Mill barley malt extract tested at 27 ppm of gluten.

In contrast, gluten-free grains like rice, corn and buckwheat test below 5 ppm of gluten.

So regular barley malt extract does contain low levels of gluten. However, some newer production methods can reduce the gluten content further.

One method limits the germination time of the barley malt to only 1-3 days instead of the typical 5-7 days. This produces “low gluten” barley malt extract with less than 20 ppm of gluten.

Another technique uses unmalted barley flakes and enzymatic processing instead of sprouting grains. Some brands using this method have tested their barley malt extract at less than 5 ppm of gluten.

So in summary, while traditional barley malt extract contains gluten in the range of 2 – 40 ppm, some specialized production methods can reduce the gluten levels significantly.

Is Barley Malt Extract Safe for a Gluten Free Diet?

Whether the low levels of gluten in barley malt extract are safe for those on a gluten free diet is controversial. There are a few key considerations in determining if barley malt extract is OK for gluten free diets:

Amount Consumed

The total amount of barley malt extract consumed will affect the potential gluten exposure. Using small amounts of barley malt extract as an occasional ingredient may result in very low intakes of gluten. However, regularly consuming larger amounts could result in gluten intakes that surpass tolerances.

Individual Tolerances

Those with celiac disease are generally advised to avoid all sources of gluten, even in trace amounts. However, non-celiac gluten sensitivity involves more individual variation in the amount of gluten that can be tolerated without symptoms. Some people may be able to handle occasional small exposures to gluten while other require a stricter zero-tolerance diet.


The development of symptoms is the most important indicator of whether a food is suitable for someone’s gluten free needs. If consuming a food containing low levels of gluten does not cause any negative symptoms, it may be tolerable. However, recurrence of symptoms shows that even small gluten exposures need to be avoided. Monitoring symptoms helps determine individual tolerance levels.

Testing Method Sensitivity

Standard gluten testing methods may not be sensitive enough to detect trace gluten present below 10 or 20 ppm. So a food may test as gluten-free but still contain miniscule amounts of gluten. Newer more sensitive testing techniques like the G12 antibody can detect down to 1 ppm of gluten. Relying on products tested to higher standards provides more assurance of gluten-free status.

So in summary, while regular barley malt extract likely contains some gluten, the small amounts may be safe for some people on gluten free diets, depending on individual tolerance levels. However, those requiring a strict zero-tolerance diet should avoid it.

What Do Organizations Say About Barley Malt Extract?

Various authoritative organizations have weighed in with guidelines and regulations regarding barley malt extract for gluten free diets. Here is a summary of some of their positions:

FDA Gluten-Free Labeling Rules

The FDA rules for gluten-free labeling in the United States prohibit barley malt extract from being labeled as “gluten-free.” Any product containing barley malt extract cannot display a gluten-free claim, according to the FDA.

Codex Alimentarius Commission

The international Codex Alimentarius Commission standard allows barley malt extract to be labeled gluten-free as long as it tests below 20 ppm of gluten.

Gluten Intolerance Group

The Gluten Intolerance Group advises those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity to avoid barley malt extract, since it tests above 5 ppm of gluten. They consider it unsafe for a gluten-free diet.

Celiac Support Associations

Organizations like BeyondCeliac, Celiac Disease Foundation and Canadian Celiac Association do not recommend barley malt extract as part of a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten-Free Certification Organizations

Gluten-free certification programs like GFCO, GFSI and Crosby’s Quality Assurance analyze individual products and only certify barley malt extract as gluten-free if it meets their standards through testing below 5 or 10 ppm, depending on the organization.

So in summary, most mainstream medical and celiac support groups advise avoiding regular barley malt extract on a gluten-free diet. However, some certification programs allow specially produced low-gluten barley malt extract.

What About Certified Gluten-Free Barley Malt Extract?

As testing methods have improved, some manufacturers are now able to produce very low gluten barley malt extract that meets certification standards for gluten-free status.

These certified gluten-free barley malt extracts undergo additional processing and generally rely on unmalted barley flakes rather than sprouted barley. They may use filtration or other methods to remove more gluten protein from the final product.

To receive certification as gluten-free, barley malt extract must consistently test below 5 or 10 ppm of gluten, depending on the particular certification program’s standards. For example:

  • Gluten Free Certification Organization (GFCO) – requires testing below 10 ppm
  • NSF Gluten-Free certification – requires less than 5 ppm of gluten
  • Crosby’s Quality Assurance Program – certification limit is below 5 ppm

So if a barley malt extract displays a logo from a reputable gluten-free certification program, it has been verified to meet strict standards through analytical testing.

Certified gluten-free barley malt extract gives more assurance that gluten exposure will remain very low. However, those requiring a zero-tolerance gluten-free diet may still wish to avoid it.

Verdict: Is Barley Malt Extract OK for Gluten-Free Diets?

In summary, here are some key takeaways on whether barley malt extract can be part of a gluten-free diet:

  • Traditional barley malt extract made from fully sprouted barley does contain low levels of gluten, typically between 2 – 40 ppm.
  • Newer production methods using unmalted barley can reduce gluten levels substantially to below 5 or 10 ppm.
  • Most mainstream medical groups advise avoiding regular barley malt extract, but certified gluten-free barley malt extract may be better tolerated.
  • Individual reactions vary – some may tolerate occasional small exposures while others require complete elimination.
  • Monitor symptoms carefully when deciding whether to include barley malt extract on a gluten-free diet.

In general, it’s best to be cautious with barley malt extract and check if certified gluten-free if choosing to consume it. Work closely with your healthcare team when deciding if barley malt extract is OK for your particular gluten free needs. Being fully informed about the potential trace gluten exposure can help make an appropriate decision.

Table Summary of Barley Malt Extract and Gluten

Type of Barley Malt Extract Gluten Content Considered Gluten-Free?
Regular, fully sprouted 2 – 40 ppm No
Low gluten method Below 20 ppm No (per FDA), Yes (per Codex)
Unmalted, enzyme treated Below 5 ppm Yes, if certified gluten-free

The Bottom Line

Regular barley malt extract likely contains some gluten and is not considered gluten-free, according to the FDA and most celiac organizations. Newer production methods can reduce the gluten content through limited malting or using unmalted barley. Certified gluten-free barley malt extract has undergone additional processing and testing to verify gluten levels below 5 ppm.

While certified gluten-free barley malt extract may be an option for including the sweet flavor of malt on a gluten-free diet, your personal tolerance based on symptoms is the best gauge of whether barley malt extract is OK for your individual needs. Work closely with your healthcare team when deciding if barley malt extract fits into your gluten free lifestyle.

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