Is Gluten Sensitivity for Real?


When was the last time you sank your teeth into a chewy baguette?

Or swirled your fork around a heap of linguini? More Americans are shunning gluten than ever before for health reasons. But new research finds that gluten may not be as evil as previously believed.

And the intestinal problems that anti-gluten crusaders give as an excuse to stay away from everything that tastes delicious may not actually be the fault of gluten!

Only 1 percent of the U.S. population suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can damage the small intestine when gluten is consumed. Left untreated, the affected individual can be at higher risk of more serious health problems like type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, neurological conditions (epilepsy and migraines), and intestinal cancers.

Gluten can be found in practically all foods: pasta, cereal, crackers, beer, salad dressings, pastries, gravies, bread, couscous, soy sauce, etc. Nearly 20 million people say they experience symptoms such as depression, ADHD-like behavior, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, bone or joint pain, and chronic fatigue when they eat gluten. David Perlmutter, a neurologist based in Florida and author of the best-selling book “Grain Brain” argues that eating gluten causes Alzheimer’s disease and destroys brain cells.

With one in three U.S. adults giving up gluten, it’s no wonder that gluten-free pastas, breads, cereals and other snacks have quickly flooded grocery store shelves. And keeping to a gluten-free diet has never been easier. Fifty-two percent of U.S. restaurant chains said they would be offering gluten-free menus this year. Even The Girl Scouts are on the gluten-free bandwagon, introducing a gluten-free chocolate chip shortbread cookie. The gluten-free industry is expected to reach $16 billion by 2016.

But back to the gluten second-guessing. Dr. Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University in Australia, published new data that undermines his famous 2011 study that scientifically connected gluten to gastric distress. That research helped make the anti-gluten movement mainstream.

Gibson’s latest work, published last spring in the journal Gastroenterology, shows that FODMAPs (which stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polylols) could be the real culprit for intestinal aches, not gluten. FODMAPs are carbs that do not get completely absorbed by the gastrointestinal track and can be easily fermented by gut bacteria — therefore causing abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea. Examples of FODMAPs include lactose, coconut products and sweeteners.

In his study, Gibson put 37 volunteers on a gluten-free and FODMAP-free diet. (The volunteers were chosen because they thought they had trouble digesting gluten). But when some study subjects were secretly given food that contained gluten, no nasty side effects were reported.

“That first paper, in 2011, blew our minds,” Joseph Murray, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and the president of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease, told the New Yorker magazine. “Essentially, it said that people are intolerant of gluten, and it was based on a well-designed, double-blind study. When people were challenged with gluten, by eating the muffins, they got sick. We just couldn’t figure it out. But then came the second study. By then, it was almost too late to put the genie back in the bottle. You have millions of people out there completely convinced that they feel better when they don’t eat gluten — and they don’t want to hear anything different.”

Bottom line: More studies are currently being conducted to test Gibson’s latest conclusions. There will always be naysayers who will defend their gluten-free lifestyles to the very end. For the general public though, the smartest move may be to watch out for those FODMAPs and mend your acrimonious relationship with gluten