Are Light Beers Really Gluten-Free?

These light beers are said to be safe on the gluten-free diet, but they're not.

light beer on bar at restaurant

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Contrary to popular opinion, mainstream light beers—including Corona, Bud Light, Coors Light, and Michelob Ultra—are not gluten-free. These beers are made with barley (a gluten grain) and are not considered to be safe for people who need to follow the gluten-free diet. Therefore, if you're gluten-free, you should avoid mainstream light beers and instead drink only beers that are specifically labeled "gluten-free."

So how have light beers gained an undeserved reputation of being okay to drink for people who have celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity? The answer to that question lies in how the beers are made, plus in sometimes dubious reports of home test results and of people who have those conditions trying the beers and not reacting—and maybe some wishful thinking.

Why Light Beers Aren't Gluten-Free

Beer is made by malting (e.g., germinating) grain. Brewers then halt the growing process and crush the grain to release the sugars it contains. These sugars are the actual malt, and they're fermented in a mixture of water, yeast, and more grain to make beer. In the fermentation process, yeast consumes the malted sugar and produces alcohol.

Barley has been the preferred grain for beer-makers for millennia. Regular beer—the type on tap at your favorite restaurant or bar and sold in six-packs at the store—generally is made with malted barley, or sometimes with a combination of malted barley and malted wheat plus other grains. Since both barley and wheat are gluten grains, regular beer is off-limits for those following the gluten-free diet.

Light (or lite) beer is made with many of the same ingredients as regular beer—including (most importantly) barley. To turn regular beer into light beer, brewers add an enzyme designed to break down more of the carbohydrates in the brew. This process increases the alcoholic content in the mixture, so the final step involves diluting the beer, or watering it down, by about 4% or 5%.

More dilute light beers generally have fewer calories than regular beers, and they may contain less gluten, simply because they have been watered down. In fact, it's possible that some varieties may contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten (the legal standard for "gluten-free"). However, these beers don't qualify for gluten-free labeling because they're made with the gluten grain barley, and they may make you sick if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity even if they don't have very much gluten in them.

These Light Beers Aren't Gluten-Free

Many light and ultra-light beers have been suggested as being safe for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, but are not actually safe since they're all made with barley. Gluten-containing light beers to avoid include:

  • Bud Light
  • Coors Light
  • Corona Extra
  • Corona Light
  • Dos Equis
  • Heineken Premium Light
  • Keystone Light
  • Michelob Ultra
  • Miller Lite
  • Milwaukee's Best Light
  • Natural Light
  • Stella Artois Light
  • Yuengling Light

Note that there are reports online indicating that some of these light beers have tested negative for gluten. Unfortunately, you can't trust those results—the tests were performed with home gluten testing kits that may work well with food, but are not well-designed to detect gluten in beer (performing accurate gluten tests on beer takes specialized methods in a lab).

There also are reports online of people with celiac disease who consumed regular light beers and didn't react. However, you shouldn't take these anecdotes as a reason to try light beer. Everyone's level of sensitivity to gluten is different, and consuming gluten may still damage your small intestine even if you don't notice a reaction (that's why you shouldn't cheat on the gluten-free diet).

Which Beers Are Gluten-Free?

Some beer manufacturers (including both Anheuser-Busch and many specialty brewers) make gluten-free beer out of gluten-free grains, such as malted sorghum, millet, rice, and buckwheat. Anheuser-Busch's Redbridge (made from sorghum) is the best-known gluten-free beer, but you often can find a selection of these beers in well-stocked stores and even on tap in gluten-free-friendly restaurants. 

A few manufacturers make what's called "gluten-removed" beer. This type of beer (which does taste like "real" beer) is made with barley, but the final product is treated with an enzyme that breaks down the gluten protein. However, a study conducted by the Gluten Intolerance Group and the University of Chicago's Celiac Disease Center found evidence of an immune system reaction from gluten-removed beer in people with celiac disease, and experts don't recommend gluten-removed beer for people with celiac disease.

A Word From Verywell

Giving up "real" beer can be difficult for people who are diagnosed with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, but regular light beer made from barley just isn't a safe alternative.

Fortunately, there are better options. If you like light beer, you could consider trying Coors Peak, which is similar to Coors Light but made with brown rice instead of barley. Coors Peak is available in the northwestern United States. Bard's Original (made with sorghum) also is considered by some beer connoisseurs to be on the light side. You also can try gluten-free hard cider—many people like cider for its crisp, light taste, and lots of brands are naturally gluten-free. Plus, there's good news if you're a wine drinker, as almost all wine is gluten-free.

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Article Sources
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