Analytic Chemist Needed

A few weeks ago I ran this comic at Mimi & Eunice:

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, both 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.





Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

12 thoughts on “Analytic Chemist Needed”

  1. There’s actually two types of test that should be run here.

    You’re getting one of them done, a quantification of how much gluten is out there.

    But the other one is to determine how sensitive someone with celiac disease actually is.

    I know someone who has it, and the thing that is really irritating for him is that he had reactions to things that were supposedly gluten-free. He adjusted by never eating ANY food that had been prepared from wheat, having come to the conclusion that he was sensitive to smaller concentrations of gluten than could otherwise be measured.

    It makes all his food choices a pain, but he is free from the symptoms that had plagued him for years.

    I look forward to seeing your results.

  2. A while back, I tried to remix your “Copying is not Theft” song. I couldn’t figure out anything. I gave up and decided to move on. Well, that’s what I thought. I ended up taking very small snippets of your vocals and making them into a type of percussion sound. After a couple of weeks of working with the it, I finished the track which I titled “Sword and Gun Day”. Your clicks and breathing can be heard all throughout the song. I also sampled many other songs as well. All the samples are listed in the post.

    I just want you to listen to this at least once.


    – steinbolt1

  3. unrelated, but i didn’t know where else to post it.

    thought this might be of interest to you, if you haven’t already seen it, and would love to hear your thoughts about it. judge chin has couched his decision in terms that suggest he objects to it because it will result in a monopoly for google… but then the article conflates that pretty freely with copyright-related objections.

  4. Thanks for this post Nina. As a gluten sensitive person (not celiac), I hate being paranoid about what I put in my mouth. I love research, too.

    Oh and I really love Mimi & Eunice!

  5. Nathan Myrvohld’s $625.00, 4000 page tome “Modernist Cuisine” may have something to say on the subject. If and when I obtain a copy of it, I’ll look for this info first.

  6. Keep in mind also that you can have a gluten allergy AND a soy allergy. The proteins are similar enough (as is casein/dairy) that if the body is allergic to one, there’s a good chance that it can be allergic to the other.

  7. Actually, who I think you want to find is an analytical chemistry professor at a good undergraduate college. The gluten study you are suggesting is well within the capabilities of a good undergraduate department and this would be a fabulous project for a good undergraduate chemistry student. Try one of the CUNY schools.

    The comments made above about soy allergies and the issue of actual gluten sensitivity in individuals with celiac are quite relevant but you have to start somewhere.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your blog and your art.

  8. Some years back they identified the gluten peptide responsible for celiac sprue. It was heavy on glutamate amino acids. I’m not sure of exactly what test they do for gluten, and whether there isn’t a family of sensitivities to glutamate rich peptides in various degrees. Soy sauce may actually be gluten free, but still contain sensitizing compounds.

    Apropos your cartoon, I had a young niece who declared herself lactose intolerant back when that was fashionable. We cured her by making home made ice cream.

  9. I found your posts while embarking on a new search for the gluten content in soy sauce. I have a form of celiac-DH and am very sensitive but also want to travel to Korea. Hence my deepened interest and my undergrad degree is in chemistry. I found this out of Nebraska:
    I am wondering if the soy sauce used in Korea would yield the same results.
    I am now a math teacher and can’t really help with the analysis, just interpretation. I am thinking of contacting the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia.

  10. Thank you for that, Marilyn! If only the full paper were online. They mentioned a “commercially-available enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) kit for the detection of gluten in foods” and through a quick search I found this: Looks like other kits are available from chemical companies, which might be cheaper.

    Maybe you could bring that to Korea with you and test samples yourself. I’d love to know the results, if you do.

    And now that I know such things exist, I could buy some and conduct my own tests!


  11. I was doing some research and came across this blog. I am a chemist and I work at SAN-J. We produce gluten free soy sauce and cooking sauce.We do not use wheat in any of our products. The reason all soy sauce is not considered gluten free is because wheat is used in the beginning of the fermentation process. Fermentation breaks down gluten and it becomes less than 5 ppm. So technically it is gluten free. However because it is used in the beginning, you cannot claim it is gluten free.

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