A huge number of Americans – up to 30% – believe they should be eating less gluten, a protein found in some grains such as wheat, barley and rye. But is this fear of gluten legitimate and is there evidence to support this belief? Or is it just another misplaced fad, similar to the fear of fat that swept through America in the 80’s and 90’s?
Celiac disease, an allergy to gluten, is a very real thing, and affects less than 1% of the US population. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, has not been proven by any studies. Some scientists do believe that about 6% of the US population could have some degree of gluten sensitivity. Some of that 6% may be pre-celiac and others may be allergic to wheat (which is different from being allergic or sensitive to gluten).
While there is a large interest in this topic and further research is currently underway to try and understand what linkages exist between certain symptoms and gluten, what the current science says is this: there may be a tiny number of people who are likely sensitive to gluten. This number is much smaller than what many people have been led to believe. Professor and scientist Peter Gibson carried out a study in 2011 that gave some credit to the belief in gluten sensitivity. However, in 2013 he revisited the same topic to take a closer look at whether it was really true and discredited his own initial study. The study parameters were as follows:
- Subjects were given every single meal for the duration of the study.
- Any other potential causes of symptoms were removed from the diet (lactose from milk, etc)
- Gibson collected nine days worth of urine and fecal matter for analysis purposes.
Gluten is a perfectly healthy and nutritious component of many grains and there is nothing wrong with eating it for the vast majority of people. Some people who cut out gluten containing foods and claim to feel better may actually have sensitivities to other compounds or wheat. Other studies have shown that this is due to a placebo like effect (such as the study mentioned above). Or, it could be that eating fewer processed foods (i.e. many grain products) is what is actually making them feel better – not the gluten itself but the reduction of simple carbs in general. It is much more likely to be one of the alternative explanations than gluten. But don’t ask the food companies – they are on track to make 16 billion USD in profit from gluten free products in 2016. Yes folks, it is in their interest to keep you scared of gluten.
That is the simple and naked truth.