Is barley malt extract safe for celiacs?

Barley malt extract is derived from barley, which contains gluten. This means that barley malt extract is not safe for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by consuming gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. People with celiac disease need to follow a strict gluten-free diet to avoid intestinal damage and other complications.

What is barley malt extract?

Barley malt extract is made by sprouting and malting barley grains. The barley is soaked, allowed to germinate, and then halted from further growth by drying with hot air. This activating process converts enzymes in the barley into sugars and other carbohydrates used for brewing beer and making cereal products sweeter.

Barley malt extract contains gluten because it is derived from barley. Barley is one of the grains prohibited on a gluten-free diet, along with wheat, rye and hybrids like triticale.

Common uses of barley malt extract

Some common uses of barley malt extract include:

  • Brewing beer – It provides fermentable sugars for yeast
  • Adding malt flavor and sweetness to baked goods and cereals
  • Making malt vinegar
  • Candy production
  • Natural food coloring

You may see barley malt extract listed as an ingredient in packaged foods like crackers, pretzels, baked goods, breakfast cereals, granola bars, chocolate, malted milkshakes and more.

Other names for barley malt extract

Barley malt extract may also be listed by various other names on food labels, such as:

  • Malt extract
  • Malt flavoring
  • Malt syrup
  • Malted barley
  • Malted barley extract

Is barley malt extract gluten-free?

No, barley malt extract is not gluten-free. Since it comes from barley, it contains gluten proteins.

Many people assume that an ingredient with the word “malt” in it must be gluten-free, like malt vinegar or maltodextrin. However, barley malt extract is one notable exception.

People with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity must avoid barley malt extract due to its gluten content. Consuming it would cause an immune reaction and intestinal damage in those with celiac disease.

Testing showspresence of gluten

Studies have repeatedly confirmed the presence of gluten proteins in barley malt extract:

  • A 2019 study found barley malt extract samples tested between 56-298 ppm of gluten. This is well above the FDA’s 20 ppm limit for foods labeled “gluten-free.”
  • Another study detected gluten protein sequences in all barley malt extract samples tested using mass spectrometry.
  • When fed to celiac disease patients, barley malt extract triggered immune responses and intestinal damage similar to the effects of pure gluten.

This evidence clearly indicates that barley malt extract contains gluten and is not safe for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

What are some substitutes for barley malt extract?

For people following a strict gluten-free diet, there are several substitutes that can be used in place of barley malt extract:

Gluten-free brewing

  • Sorghum – Used to make 100% gluten-free beers. Provides fermentable sugars.
  • Buckwheat – Also used in GF brewing.
  • Millet – Ancient gluten-free grain that can substitute for barley malt.
  • Rice – Adds light flavor and fermentable sugars.

Gluten-free baking

  • Molasses – Provides moisture and imparts a rich, malty sweetness.
  • Brown rice syrup – Made from boiled brown rice, provides sweetness.
  • Sorghum syrup – Sweet syrup made from sorghum cane.
  • Honey – Natural sweetener that adds moisture and flavor.

Other substitutes

  • Gluten-free malt extract – Made from grains like sorghum, millet and rice.
  • Carob powder – Has a natural malt-like flavor.
  • Malted rice powder – Made by sprouting rice grains.

Getting the right consistency, flavor and fermentability can take some trial and error when substituting for barley malt extract in recipes. But there are definitely options to create gluten-free foods and beverages.

Should celiacs avoid malt flavoring?

Yes, people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid any ingredients listing “malt” or “malt flavoring” on food labels, unless they are specifically labeled gluten-free.

Malt flavoring is often made from barley malt extract. However, the exact source may not be disclosed. Manufacturers are only required to list “malt flavoring” as the ingredient.

Since malt flavoring may contain unspecified gluten sources like barley, it is not considered gluten-free. The only exception is malt flavoring specifically labeled “gluten-free”, which would be produced from gluten-free grains.

Some examples of foods that may contain undisclosed barley or gluten-based malt flavoring include:

  • Cereals
  • Crackers
  • Pretzels
  • Chips
  • Snack foods
  • Sausages
  • Ice cream
  • Candy

Checking with manufacturers about any malt ingredients can help identify whether foods containing them are safe to eat on a gluten-free diet. When in doubt, it’s best for celiacs to avoid.

What about malt vinegar?

Malt vinegar is fermented from barley malt, suggesting it would contain gluten. However, the gluten protein is broken down during the vinegar production process.

Several studies have confirmed malt vinegar is gluten-free and safe for people with celiac disease. White vinegar and cider vinegar are also gluten-free choices.

Is maltodextrin gluten-free?

Yes, maltodextrin is generally considered gluten-free. It is most often made from corn, potato, rice or tapioca starch.

The term “maltodextrin” refers to a processed food additive used as a thickener, filler or preservative. While its name contains “malt”, maltodextrin is typically made from gluten-free starches.

However, as with any ingredient, it’s still smart to check labels and contact manufacturers to confirm gluten-free status if celiac disease is a concern.

What about fermented foods with barley?

Traditional fermentation does not break down gluten as was previously thought. People with celiac disease still need to avoid fermented products containing gluten grains.

These include:

  • Beer – Made from barley malt.
  • Soy sauce – Usually contains wheat.
  • Miso – Often made with barley or other gluten grains.
  • Sourdough bread – Contains gluten from wheat flour.

However, there are some fermented foods that are naturally gluten-free and suitable for a celiac diet:

  • Wine and distilled spirits like vodka, gin, rum (made from grapes, potatoes, sugar cane, etc)
  • Vinegars except malt vinegar
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Fermented vegetables like pickles
  • Kombucha made with gluten-free ingredients
  • Sourdough from gluten-free flours like rice or buckwheat
  • Gluten-free soy sauce (tamari)

When in doubt, check how fermented foods are produced to see if they contain any prohibited gluten grains or ingredients derived from them.

Is barley malt extract safe in medications?

Barley malt extract is sometimes used as an ingredient in oral medications, especially capsules and tablets. This is generally considered safe for people with celiac disease, as the amount of gluten is typically minuscule.

One study tested 38 different medications containing barley malt extract and found gluten levels between 5-58 parts per million (ppm). Recall the FDA limit is 20 ppm to qualify as “gluten-free.”

However, a few case studies have reported patients reacting to barley-derived ingredients in medications. So it likely depends on individual sensitivity.

Those with celiac disease who are extra-sensitive may wish to avoid or closely monitor medications containing barley malt extract. Checking with manufacturers and working with doctors is recommended in these cases.

Safer medication options

For those who prefer to avoid barley-derived ingredients, some safer medication options include:

  • Tablets made without barley malt extract as a filler
  • Gel capsules rather than pressed tablets
  • Liquids instead of pills

Being aware of all ingredients in both prescription and over-the-counter medications is an important aspect of following a strict gluten-free diet for celiac disease.

The bottom line

Here is a summary of the key points covered in this article:

  • Barley malt extract contains gluten and is not safe for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
  • Barley malt extract testing shows it contains high levels of gluten protein.
  • Gluten-free substitutes include sorghum, molasses, brown rice syrup and gluten-free malt extract.
  • Celiacs should avoid malt flavoring unless it is specifically labeled gluten-free.
  • Malt vinegar is gluten-free, but fermented foods with gluten grains are unsafe.
  • Medications with tiny amounts of barley malt extract are likely ok, but liquid or gel options are safest.

Following a gluten-free diet entails vigilant label reading and asking questions to identify potential sources of gluten. When it comes to barley malt extract, the bottom line is that this ingredient is off-limits for anyone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance due to its gluten content.

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