Gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale – has gotten a lot of bad press lately for its alleged role in everything from intestinal gas to autoimmune disorders.
Estimates show that around 18 million people in the US have gluten intolerance and about 1 per cent face a more serious condition called celiac disease (CD).
In those who suffer from it, gluten causes an immune response that attacks the lining of the small intestine, making the body less efficient at absorbing nutrients, which, in turn, can lead to further complications.
The only effective way to manage celiac disease is to commit to a lifelong gluten-free diet.
But is there any reason to believe this “diabolical” protein has any harmful effects on healthy people? Honor Whiteman from MedicalNewsToday looked at the evidence.
A survey, conducted in 2012 by a market research company NDP Group, revealed that almost 30 per cent of US adults (compared to 1 per cent who have CD) claim to be either reducing or completely removing gluten-containing food products from their diet.
And yet, despite the negative reports in the media, evidence for gluten being harmful to healthy individuals is scant.
A 2011 study, carried out by Peter Gibson and colleagues from Monash University in Australia, found that feeding volunteers gluten made them gassy and fatigued, thereby lending some credibility to the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS.
In 2013, another study from the same research group overturned the previous findings by demonstrating that the bloating they detected previously may be attributed to carbohydrates called FODMAPs (fermentable, oligo-, di-, monodisaccharides, and polyols).
In conclusion, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Lisa Simperman said that “gluten is neither essential nor detrimental to one’s health or quality of diet.”
“There are no beneficial health effects [to a gluten-free diet]. Wheat and gluten have recently become popularized as dietary villains by a number of books and media outlets.
Unfortunately, talk show hosts are able to amplify such messages while having little to no health or nutrition credentials. There is no research to support gluten-free diets for anyone other than those affected by celiac disease.”
The growing popularity of gluten-free diets, now promoted by such celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow and Ryan Gosling, has also lead grocery shops to stack their isles with more and more products that fit the lifestyle.
“It’s true that grocery stores will try and bow to demand,” said Gaynor Bussel, a dietician and spokesperson for the UK’s Association for Nutrition. “It’s a vicious circle as they may try and sell more by promoting gluten-free as a good myth. On the other hand, it does give a true celiac more choice other than what they can get on prescription.”
For those who are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, such as chronic or severe abdominal pain, bloating or diarrhoea, Simperman advises to consult with a physician, as self-treatment “may delay proper treatment.”
She also stresses the importance of eating gluten prior to being tested for celiac: “… following a gluten-free diet before being tested may result in a false positive. If you still want to follow a gluten-free diet after celiac disease or any other health problems have been ruled out, talk to a dietician to make sure your diet contains all the essential nutrients.”