Gluten is not the enemy (for most people)

Katherine Kornobis
17 February 2015

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/tupungato

Walking around your local grocery store, you may have noticed some new products popping up. Actually, they’ve always been around, but until about five years ago you might not have heard of quinoa, sorghum, or millet. What do these products—and many others—all have in common? They're all gluten-free.

Did you know? Celiac disease is strongly influenced by genetics. If someone in your immediate family has it, you are 10 times more likely to have it yourself!Everyone seems to be avoiding it lately. So what exactly is gluten, anyway? Gluten is a protein that acts a bit like a glue (hence the name “gluten”) in grains like wheat, barley and rye. In baking, it helps breads and cookies stay together.

But if you read the allergy alerts at the end of the ingredient lists on packaged foods, you’ll find that gluten is in a lot more products than just pastas and baked goods. For example, one that you might not expect is soy sauce, which is actually made from fermented wheat. Even spices like coriander and legumes like dried lentils that do not contain gluten naturally can absorb it during processing.

The fact that gluten is so common isn’t a problem for most people. But for those with celiac disease, it can become a nightmare. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the immune system begins to attack the small intestine, resulting in bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort. There is no cure, but the disease can be managed by following a gluten-free diet.

So should you immediately stop eating all foods that contain gluten, just in case you have celiac disease? Probably not. In fact, a gluten-free diet has been found to do more harm than good for people who have no trouble digesting gluten. This is because gluten-free foods often lack a lot of nutritional benefits. For example, many gluten-free products, including breads made from rice or corn flour, are very low in fibre and other essential nutrients, such as zinc and vitamin B12.

However, with all the recent media hype about gluten being “bad” for you, everyone seems to think they have a gluten intolerance. Yet a recent study of people with “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) suggests that such a condition may not even exist. Researchers assembled a group of 37 individuals who didn’t have celiac disease but who experienced similar symptoms when they consumed foods containing gluten.They were fed a series meals with varying amounts of gluten or no gluten at all (whey protein was used as a control). And when they were surveyed about how their guts were feeling, everyone in the study reported feeling worse, regardless of whether they were eating a high-gluten or gluten-free diet at the time!

Did you know? Eating gluten-free can be very expensive. In the UK, doctors will even issue prescriptions for gluten-free food so some or all of the cost is covered by health insurance programs.The results of the experiment point to something called the nocebo effect. Unlike the placebo effect, where a treatment with no real medical benefits causes symptoms to improve, the nocebo effect occurs when something that does no real harm causes you to feel worse. Basically, since the participants in the study expected what they were eating to make them feel sick (because they suspected it contained gluten), their brains made them feel sick. However, the lead researcher has also stressed the need to study NCGS before dismissing its existence entirely.

Another way of understanding the psychological impact of all the attention gluten-free products have been receiving is the logical fallacy know by the Latin name argumentum ad populum (appeal to the people or appeal to numbers). Basically, it involves using the fact that large numbers of people believe something to argue that it must be true.

This could explain why a University of Florida study found that a third of people believe that gluten-free foods are healthier than conventional foods and that eating gluten-free will help them lose weight. While gluten-free products are lower in carbohydrates than regular breads and pastas, which might cause some gluten-free eaters to lose weight, they are still lacking in the essential nutrients mentioned above. There are also widespread claims gluten causes or contributes to other medical conditions, such as autism, despite the lack of any firm scientific evidence.

Basically, the key to being healthy is usually to eat everything in moderation. If you like those fancy gluten-free cookies in the health food section, don’t be deterred from eating them. All I am saying is that gluten isn’t the bad guy here. Go ahead and have a bagel! Unless you have celiac disease, of course.

Learn more!

Celiac disease (2014)
David T. Derrer, WebMD.com

General introduction to celiac disease, including causes, symptoms and treatment.

Gluten Intolerance May Not Exist (2014)
Steven Ross Pomeroy, Forbes

No Effects of Gluten in Patients With Self-Reported Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity After Dietary Reduction of Fermentable, Poorly Absorbed, Short-Chain Carbohydrates (2013)
J. R. Biesiekierski, S. L. Peters, E. D. Newnham, O. Rosella, J. G. Muir & P. R. Gibson, Gastroenterology 145

Gluten Causes Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Subjects Without Celiac Disease: A Double-Blind Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial (2011)
J. R. Biesiekierski, E. D. Newnham, P. M. Irving, J. S Barrett, M. Haines, J. D. Doecke, S. J. Shepherd, J. G. Muir & P. R. Gibson, American Journal of Gastroenterology 106
Link to abstract. Subscription required to view full text.

Scientific article raising doubts about the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), an earlier scientific article by the same lead researcher showing evidence for NCGS, and a news article discussing the key differences between the two studies.

When it comes to gluten-free diets, unfounded beliefs abound (2014)
University of Florida, Science Daily

Most People Shouldn't Eat Gluten-Free (2013)
Rachel Rettner, Scientific American

Going gluten-free just because? Here’s what you need to know (2013)
Holly Strawbridge, Harvard Health

Press release, blog entry and news article discussing popular beliefs about gluten-free foods, whether you should exclude gluten from your diet and dietary considerations to keep in mind if you do.

The Relationship of Autism and Gluten (2013)
Timothy Buie, Clinical Therapeutics 35

A Gluten-Free Diet as an Intervention for Autism and Associated Spectrum Disorders: Preliminary Findings (2013)
P. Whiteley, J. Rodgers, D. Savery & P. Shattock, Autism 3
Link to abstract. Subscription required to view full text.

The Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet In Autism: Results of A Preliminary Double Blind Clinical Trial (2006)
J. H. Elder, M. Shankar, J. Shuster, D. Theriaque, S. Burns, L. Sherrill, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 36
Link to abstract. Subscription required to view full text.

Scientific articles studying the possibility of a link between autism and gluten and finding a lack of evidence to support a gluten-free diet as a treatment for the condition.

Call to scrap gluten-free food prescriptions (2013)
Anna-Marie Lever, BBC News

News report on the merits of doctors issuing prescriptions for gluten-free food.

Katherine Kornobis

Katherine is from Waterloo, Ontario, and is a biology & chemistry teacher in the Waterloo Region District School Board. Her passions include travel, the environment, teaching and learning new things.


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