If you eat gluten free you probably are aware that barley malt extract has been in the news of late.

Van’s, one of my favorite manufacturer’s of gluten-free foods, recently unveiled a couple of new gluten-free products — French Toast Sticks and Pancakes. But listed among the ingredients is malt extract… barley malt extract, to be precise.

The use of barley malt extract in these products has caused a lot of concern among gluten-free consumers, me included, for a variety of reasons that will be discussed below. But first the bottom line…

Van’s is removing barley malt extract from their gluten-free French toast and pancakes… hooray!!!

Here is the statement Van’s provided me to use in this article:

“Van’s recently launched two new Wheat Free products – Cinnamon French Toast Sticks and Homestyle Pancakes. We have received some inquires regarding the use of malt extract in these new products. Malt extract is only contained in these two new items and is not an ingredient in any of our wheat free waffles.

“For all our wheat free items, Van’s has always tested incoming raw materials and outgoing finished product to ensure they meet or exceed the proposed FDA gluten free standard (<20 ppm gluten) and these new products are no exception.

“However, we do understand that the inclusion of malt extract in our new products has caused confusion among some Van’s gluten-free consumers. As a result, we have decided to remove malt extract from these two products. We anticipate this change will take place with our next production.

“We hope that you will continue to enjoy Van’s products and appreciate the opportunity to provide you with great-tasting gluten free foods.”

I am very impressed with this company. I contacted Van’s on Friday when I learned that barley malt extract was included in some of their products. They took my concerns seriously and over the weekend scheduled a conference call for Monday. I just finished speaking with Jay, Steve and Sarah. This is a company that really cares about the concerns of their customers.

Why the confusion over barley malt extract?
It is very tricky to test for barley contamination in food. One of the assays (sandwich omega-gliadin ELISA) severely underestimates gluten contamination from barley; the other (sandwich R5 ELISA) overestimates gluten contamination from barley by a factor of 2. And when it comes to testing for gluten in a hydrolyzed product (a product that has been partially broken down), such as barley malt extract, the test that usually overestimates barley contamination may now underestimate it. It really is a confusing situation! Fortunately, there is an assay available for testing hydrolyzed ingredients. It is called the competitive R5 ELISA.

How much gluten does barley malt extract contain?
When 3 barley malt extracts were tested for gluten using the competitive R5 ELISA, they contained approximately 320, 960, and 1300 parts per million (ppm) gluten. Taking into account the fact that the R5 ELISA may overestimate barley contamination by a factor of 2, the extracts more likely contained approximately 160, 480, and 650 ppm gluten.

Obviously, when barley malt extract is an ingredient in a food product, such as breakfast cereals, waffles, and pancakes, the ppm gluten content of the final food product will be far less than the ppm gluten content of the extract. In one study that assessed the gluten content from barley in two breakfast cereals containing barley malt extract, one product contained 795 ppm gluten; the other 171 ppm gluten.

Might some products containing barley malt extract have less than 20 ppm gluten?
Maybe. But in order to know for sure that a product containing barley malt extract has less than 20 ppm gluten a manufacturer has to use the best available assay to test their product. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know the best test to use for a given product.

Thomas Grace, CEO of Bia Diagnostics, a food testing facility in Burlington, Vermont, says the following concerning the use of barley malt extract in gluten-free foods: “In my opinion until there is a reliable method that can detect all hydrolyzed hordeins (the harmful protein in barley) in these extracts and correlate them with minimal reactive thresholds, manufacturers might want to stay away from barley malt extract in gluten free labeled products. We might find that some barley malt extracts are fine for persons with celiac disease, but until we know that for sure and have a reliable method for verification one should proceed on the side of caution.”

FDA’s proposed rule for food labeled gluten free
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that in the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed rule for gluten-free labeling, a food labeled gluten-free cannot include an “ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has not been processed to remove gluten.” Examples of such ingredients included in the proposed rule include farina, graham, semolina, hydrolyzed wheat protein, vital gluten, wheat bran, wheat germ, malt vinegar, and—you guessed it—barley malt extract or flavoring.

The FDA proposed rule goes on to say that “because these ingredients are derived from a prohibited grain and have not been processed to remove gluten, they are presumed to contain gluten.”

What is a little confusing for consumers and manufacturers, however, is that this information appears to be contradicted later in the proposed rule when malt extract and malt vinegar are listed along with wheat starch as ingredients derived from a prohibited grain that have been processed to remove gluten.

This apparent inconsistency undoubtedly will be rectified when the rule is finalized. But just to make sure, when the FDA reopens the comment period on the proposed rule (after the safety assessment is made public) you may want to comment on this inconsistency. I know I will!

Copyright © by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD

Originally published April 2009. Page last updated February 3, 2011.

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Barley Malt Extract and Van’s Products