When it comes to nutrition, assumptions mixed with marketing can lead to confusion, and gluten is the perfect example.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. For people with Coeliac disease, eating it prompts the immune system to attack the small intestine, leading to digestive problems such as diarrhoea and bloating. The only treatment for Coeliac disease is going gluten free.
Many forego gluten for other reasons. “Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity”, where people without Coeliac get symptoms after eating gluten, is a common motivation. Often, most people are simply assuming that gluten is the problem, and not another culprit, without getting a diagnosis. Some even go gluten free simply to be “healthier”.
Gluten is found in pasta, bread, cakes, and breakfast cereals, which are carbohydrate-laden, energy-dense foods, so that logic can seem sound, but it may leave you focusing on the wrong things.
In the five years to 2014, the number of people avoiding gluten more than tripled, despite no change in the diagnosis rates of Coeliacs. This suggests this increase is more to do with marketing and trends than actual dietary needs.
Recent research has shown that only 16 per cent of people who report being sensitive or intolerant actually experienced reproducible symptoms when challenged with gluten, if they weren’t aware they were eating it. So in the absence of a diagnosis, is a gluten-free diet helpful, benign or harmful?
Eating sans gluten is expensive. Which is fine, if you like gluten-free products, and have the spare cash. But like many diet trends, it perpetuates the myth that a healthy diet is expensive. And unless you have Coeliac, gluten-free foods are no healthier or more nutritious. In fact, gluten-free cakes and bread are normally higher in energy than their gluten-containing counterparts. Yet the myth persists that having a gluten-free torte with your coffee instead of “regular” gluten-containing cake is somehow healthier. Added to this, the perception that healthy is always expensive can be a deterrent that stops some people trying other, potentially more helpful ways to improve their diet.
Can going gluten-free be bad for your health?
Recently released studies have suggested avoiding gluten may actually be detrimental to health. This is because avoiding gluten leads to avoidance of whole grains, which are important sources of micronutrients, fibre and prebiotics. Fibre is important for gut health and prebiotics to feed the good bacteria in our microbiome (our gut bacteria).
In Australia, wheat flour for bread making is fortified with folic acid. Maintaining folic acid levels is particularly important in women of reproductive age for the prevention of neural tube defects such as spina bifida in children. Wheat bread is one of the major dietary sources.
Going gluten free without a diagnosis is not recommended. Not only will it cost you more in both dollars and energy, but you might be doing yourself harm by missing out on the other healthy components in gluten-containing foods.
Dr Emma Beckett is Broadsheet’s nutrition columnist. A molecular nutritionist with a Ph.D. in Food Science, she is a post-doctoral fellow in the School of Medicine and Public Health and the University of Newcastle. In a world of mixed messages she can be found busting nutrition myths and empowering people to critically assess nutrition information. She tweets at @synapse101.