Some people fuss about their food, always on the hunt for the latest bogeyman. And they have found one. The dastardly culprit, they say, is gluten.

You can hardly walk down an aisle at most supermarkets without seeing “gluten-free” taglines boldly printed on boxes and cans. Even foods that never contained gluten — juices, nuts and seeds — are being promoted as “gluten-free.”

Websites such as glutenfree.com are promoting the avoidance of gluten with dietary recommendations for anyone who wants to live a “gluten-free lifestyle.”

Not surprisingly, the cost of eating gluten-free foods is higher. And the remarkable number of people who have gone gluten-free have turned it into a billion-dollar market in the U.S.

Gluten balls food

A gluten-free product.

Wikimedia/ChildofMidnight

This all leads to a few questions. For one, what is gluten? And do all of the people who are avoiding it know the answer?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s what makes dough stick together.

Is gluten harmful? For some people the answer is yes. They have an autoimmune reaction in their body when they eat gluten. It’s called celiac disease, which can be determined by a blood test or intestinal biopsy. It’s also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy.

About 1 percent of all Americans suffer from this — and the irony is that most don’t know they do and they aren’t buying the very gluten-free products that they need. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, fewer than one in five people with celiac disease is aware of it.

For such people — and, to be clear, we’re not talking about the majority of people who are avoiding gluten here — it causes the body of people with celiac disease to attack their own small intestines and it interferes with the absorption of vitamins and nutrients. Results can range from nutritional deficiencies to malnourishment with serious health consequences, including thyroid disease, osteoporosis, other autoimmune disorders and even cancer.

For celiac disease sufferers, finding the right types of food has long been an uphill battle, although that’s changed recently because so many other people have turned to one of the latest dietary fads: gluten-free diets.

Nearly 2,000 new gluten-free products have reached the market in the last three years, according to Mintel’s Global New Products database.

One of the positive effects of this is how much easier it is for people who suffer from celiac disease to find something they can safely eat.

But when one in 10 households reports going gluten free as part of a dietary craze it raises questions about whether it is good for them or not.

So, is there any harm in eating gluten-free?

That depends on what else you might be eating instead. Foods with gluten often contain fiber, vitamins and minerals that are necessary in the daily diet. Gluten-free foods often contain refined grains that are often low in nutrients.

Nutritionists agree that certain substitutes like quinoa and buckwheat can be healthy naturally gluten-free grains, and should be included in a healthy diet, gluten sensitivity or not. A careful assessment of vitamin intake is also essential if eating gluten-free.

If someone with celiac disease eats gluten, blood tests show antibodies that can be measured in a lab. But there is no test for those who are gluten-sensitive, and some folks may think they are allergic to eating gluten may just be making better dietary choices and getting more conscious of their health in general.

Could this be the placebo effect, or is there something else to it?

While there may be — and probably is — a real problem, there are signs that gluten may not be the culprit after all.

In the late 1990s, scientists linked eating certain carbohydrates to symptoms of IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome. Ten years later, a graduate student took a closer look to see if gluten could cause the same symptoms in people who did not have celiac disease. The answer was a resounding yes.

But is it just gluten?

Researchers at Monash University in Australia were intrigued by the possibility that there might be something else in wheat — the most common source of gluten — that might provide a clue.

They focused on fructan, which is present in many of the same foods as gluten. It is part of a group of carbohydrates that are considered fermentable poorly-absorbed short-chain carbohydrates (oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols, known by their odd but memorable acronym, FODMAPs).

Just last year in the journal Gastroenterology, the same group of scientists reported on their study that following a diet that is low in FODMAPs helped with the same symptoms that are often linked to gluten sensitivity. But gluten wasn’t causing them. In fact when people ate gluten, they felt fine. But if they ate the foods with FODMAPs, all their symptoms came back.

For all those people avoiding gluten, it might not be the cause of their digestive problems after all. Other foods could be causing it, in particular, those that contain FODMAPs, such as high fructose corn syrup, dairy, sweeteners like sorbitol, etc.

So, the next time someone tells you he or she can’t eat gluten you might suggest they look at other parts of their diet that could be causing the problems they might be having.

If they insist gluten is their problem, encourage them to be tested, and find out if they have celiac disease.

If not, then they might just be following the latest fad, and a very expensive one at that.

 

 

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