Analytic Chemist Needed

A few weeks ago I ran this comic:

I’ve long suspected that soy sauce could contain only small traces of wheat, so I did a little online research. Surprisingly, I found only one item that addressed the gluten content of soy sauce directly, and found it contains none at all:

Gluten analysis of two popular soy sauces
We sent a sample of soy sauce of the brands Kikkoman and Lima to an external laboratory to determine gluten levels. In both samples the gluten content was below detection limit of 5ppm (see report). According to a new European legislation, which will only be fully implemented in 2012, gluten-free foodstuffs should contain less than 20 ppm gluten. The FDA also proposes a limit of 20 ppm. This means that our two tested products may be considered as gluten-free soy sauce. link

The article contains a link to a lab report which appears to be Belgian. It’s strong evidence, but celiac organizations are still claiming soy sauce contains gluten, which leads trolls to leave furious comments at and my Facebook page for daring to suggest otherwise.

I’d like to clear up the soy sauce confusion once and for all. A Belgian lab report makes one data point, but more data points are needed, especially because these substances may differ between the US and Europe. What I’d like is an analysis of several brands of American soy sauce, buth conventional shoyu (derived from wheat ingredients) and “gluten-free” tamari. Also both fancy health food store brands, and cheap run of the mill supermarket kinds. What would really be helpful is a brand-by-brand chart the wheat-sensitive could refer to.

So, is there an analytic chemist in the house? A chemistry grad student? A biochem hacker space with time and resources on their hands? I’m certainly not a chemist, but if you produce such a report you’ll have my undying gratitude and whatever publicity I and Mimi & Eunice can muster. Also, you’d be doing good for the world.

P.S. Grain alcohol derived from wheat also contains no gluten:

There has been concern expressed at times about products made from grain alcohol, when the alcohol might be derived from wheat. Because the toxic peptides (in fact all peptides) have low volatility, whereas alcohol produced by grain fermentation has a high volatility, properly distilled alcohol derived from wheat grain will contain no toxic peptides. Consequently, all vinegars made from a base of grain alcohol should be safe and this is true also for alcohol extracts as well, for example, alcoholic extracts of vanilla. In general, it appears that distilled liquors such as vodkas and whiskies should be safe, as well. link

That didn’t stop celiac disease organizations from telling their constituents it did contain gluten. I am wondering why these organizations don’t have various comestibles lab analyzed themselves, but they don’t. It also doesn’t stop people from leaving comments like this on online message boards:

The ONLY alcohol celiacs should drink are: Sorghum based beer, potato vodka, most wines, Rum, Tequila, and pure gin (made from Juniper berries ONLY).

Gin, even “pure gin,” is of course not fermented from juniper berries, it’s grain alcohol flavored with them. A friend of mine who has celiac disease told me she could have gin but not grain alcohol (and she tested on herself to make sure). When I simply Googled “gin” to show her article after article explaining that gin is in fact grain alcohol, she looked confused and stricken.

Personally I don’t think distilled alcohol is particularly healthy for anyone, but folks seem to love it so much they’re willing to drink it even if they have celiac disease. I’d rather drink soy sauce.




11 comments to Analytic Chemist Needed

  • ZardoZ

    I wasn’t aware that there might be such a thing as gluten intolerance. However, many people report having problems with monosodium glutamate (“Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”). Whether that condition exists is also an issue of debate; scientific evidence seems to be inconclusive. Be that as it may, freely occuring glutamate is to be found in soy sauce, contributing to its umami flavour. Maybe people just mess up the names of the two substances, so that when they talk about their alledged gluten intolerance, they are actually referring to glutamate. HTH.

    Best regards and thanks for producing such a lovely webcomic! :-}

    • Nina

      The issue is that many soy sauces are derived from wheat ingredients. Shoyu is made from both soy and wheat. However, it is fermented and processed such that there may be no gluten left in the final product.

      Grain alcohol is also derived from wheat, but contains no gluten.

  • Esn

    The reason people are sensitive about this is because it’s their health. Their body is telling them that something is wrong, and when doctors insist that they’re just imagining things, it drives them absolutely mad. It feels to them like they’re being told to die (by being told that doing the thing which makes them feel better should not be done, and sometimes mocked for doing it).

    In most cases, the scientific process can safely detach itself a bit, do its tests and have its arguments until eventually it comes at the right answer. In these cases, it’s very much personal.

    There are still tons of things that medicine doesn’t know, and if someone finds that doing something or avoiding certain foods makes them feel better, I’m not going to be the one to mock them. It’s their life, not mine.

    • There are still tons of things that medicine doesn’t know, and if someone finds that doing something or avoiding certain foods makes them feel better, I’m not going to be the one to mock them. It’s their life, not mine.

      There are plenty of things science doesn’t know, but there are also plenty of things that people don’t know. If you claim that you can’t drink orange juice because you’re allergic to milk, it doesn’t matter what ‘your body tells you’–there’s no milk in orange juice.

      More importantly, though, the human body isn’t that smart. There are plenty of things that make us feel bad that are good for us (e.g. no one likes getting a shot, but they could save your life) and plenty of things that make us feel good that are bad for us (e.g. various drugs will make you feel great while destroying your liver). I won’t claim that grain alcohol doesn’t make some people with celiac disease ill–but the cause can’t be gluten if the alcohol doesn’t contain any. Sometimes when people are told they’re imagining things, it’s because they really are imagining things. That doesn’t mean they’re not really experiencing what they think they are–but it doesn’t mean that their delusion is accurate, either.

      It’s tempting to say that we should just let people believe whatever makes them happy, since it’s their life. But, it’s not just their life. People make decisions both for themselves and others–children under their care, spouses who can’t choose for themselves, and various others. A poor decision made due to an incorrect understanding of reality can do real harm to people who haven’t done anything to deserve it. Ultimately, ignorance can hurt us all. If mockery will help educate people, then I’m all for mockery.

  • Michal

    i found these on google scholar, using my university credentials.
    the second link is of particular interest. it seems gluten can be added to change the colour of soy sauce.


  • Disclaimer: Not a doctor, not a chemist, but a science hacker if you can call it that.

    Why not use blood tests to find proof, allergies are immune responses, you got antigens in the blood and they will react with the substances, collect the blood and use a $50 USB microscope that can record video(i.e. Scalar have some of those) to watch the results, image the first sample the control one that will have nothing added, record the temperature and any other related variables, then record the second control sample with gluten added to see the differences, and then sample all those foods they complain about to watch the reactions and post it on the internet so people can watch and decide from themselves, you can argue with theories but it becomes difficult to argue with your own eyes.

    • pauliswhoiam

      Sorry, it’s a nice idea, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t really work. I think you mean antibodies; and yes coeliacs do have (relatively) high levels of antibodies to gluten in the blood, although these are greatly reduced after a gluten free diet is adopted. But there are numerous ‘related variables’; i.e. all the other possible antigens in the food product you are testing. Also I doubt the the level of antibodies in the blood is high enough in any case to produce microscopically visible affects (like agglutination or haemolysis); anti-gluten antibodies are mostly IgA, which is specialised for secretion and so at a very low level in blood.
      Testing small concentrations of specific proteins in complex foodstuffs is a bit trickier than you imagine I’m afraid.

  • John Duncan Yoyo

    You have to be careful with reading Below Detection Limits as none.

    Most of the time that is a safe assumption but it can get you into trouble when instrumentation becomes more sensitive and it finds a number less than the Detection Limit of the previous instrument and higher than that of the new instrument.

    When I was in college one of our better teaching professors discovered an amount of something in this valley between detection limits. An older professor had claimed that you would find none of this substance in this structure. The younger professor contradicted the older professor who blocked the younger professor’s tenure because of this slight. So we lost out on a professor who could actually teach for an emeritus professor who made too strong a claim and wasn’t much of class room teacher by all reports.

  • One thing that you also should consider is that science really isn’t as advanced as we would like. From an old book with the title “Sick From Healthy Food“: There are about 120’000 different chemical molecules in the average human brain. We know the structure for about 20’000 of them. 1’000 have a name. For 20, we have a foggy idea what they do.

    That was 15 years ago. Today, we know the structure for almost all of them but the brain is so complex that it’s still hard to say what each substance does in the sense that it’s impossible to tell if a high level of melatonin is good or bad for an individual brain. In the general case, certain levels are better than other but those numbers don’t apply to the individual because melatonin is just one of many parts of the whole picture and the whole picture is just too complex to grasp even if we were able to understand each bit.

    Along the same lines, individual ingredients in your food might be OK but as soon as you mix them, they might show unexpected behaviors. Example: There are several kinds of pesticides which farmers spread on food. A lab in Europe tested three, a herbicide, a fungicide and an insecticide. All of them were applied with the appropriate safe levels as per the law. None of the 100 tested lab rats died when eating food grown with each of them.

    But 50% of the rats die when all three are on the same food.

    So 0 + 0 + 0 can give 1.

    My conclusion: Trust your body. If you don’t like something, stop eating it. The problem: Your environment will not understand. There is very little lenience when it comes to disliking food. As one commenter above said: You must be imagining things.

    It turns out, you’re not: The human body has extremely efficient tools to tell good from bad food. It has to because for 99.999999% of the time, supermarkets did not exist. Healthy food, grown under controlled circumstances, is a relatively new thing. For millions of years, (pre-)humans had to eat what the earth grew by itself.

    So if you don’t like some food, be true. Tell peer pressure to go to hell. If you ask around, you will find that everyone doesn’t like some dish. But of course, they aren’t sick. It’s only you who is imagining things.

    It’s not the wheat in the Soy sauce that you can’t digest? So what. A lot of people say “gluten intolerance” to put an end to the annoying and futile arguments. Others have diarrhea and flatulence every day but “milk is so healthy!” Yeah, if you don’t have a certain kind of bacteria in your intestines that turn lactose into poison, it can be healthy. As long as you’re a child.

    There is only one animal that still drinks milk as an adult on this planet: Humans. It would be simple for, say, horses to get a mouthful from a mare after the foal had its dose. Doesn’t happen. Why not? Does it need the smartest brain on the world to digest milk as an adult?

    Of course, no other animal on the planet produces billions liters of waste milk every year which would be extremely expensive to get rid of if it couldn’t be sold for a fortune. To the Chinese, for example. I think I remember that most people from Asia can’t properly digest milk. Something must have changes in recent years. For example, the amount of money poured into ads that “milk is healthy.”

    Or why do we get more and more allergies and other “industrial diseases” when all the numbers show that we’re living more “healthy” every year?

  • Dog_Vomit

    I can’t believe people are trolling this site about anything. Chill the hell out people.

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